As much as it is a straightforward true-crime tale, Elizabeth De Wolfe’s The Murder of Mary Bean is also an analysis of the cultural and social pressures that faced mid-19th-century women. It tackles abortion, female economic independence, pre-marital sex, and public versus private images — as well as the stories society tells itself to come to terms with these uncomfortable ideas.
“Mary Bean” isn’t who she says she is — the trial that follows the factory girl’s death certainly illuminates that much. But neither is Berengera Caswell (Mary Bean’s real name) what society ultimately paints her as, in an effort to create a socially acceptable narrative for the young woman’s fate.
Was she an innocent victim of seduction, or a siren who got what she deserved? Was she an industrious independent worker, or a spendthrift who squandered her hard-earned wages on frivolous baubles? Did she want the abortion that ultimately killed her, or did her lover force her to obtain it? Essentially, what kind of woman was Berengera Caswell?
The body of the Canadian native was discovered in a Saco stream in 1850. She’d been working in the booming mills in Maine and Massachusetts, and the subsequent investigation into how she died, and how she ended up under the ice, was devoured by public and press alike. The case presented tangible proof of women’s changing place in industrializing society — and gave the public a safe space in which to discuss those issues.
Later, the case was fictionalized in two penny-press morality stories, written to serve as both public-service announcements and entertainment.
|The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories | By Elizabeth De Wolfe | Kent State University Press | 203 pages | $24.95|
Maine Women Writers Collection Series | Elizabeth De Wolfe March 6 | Stacy Mitchell March 20 | Monica Wood April 3 | Jenny Siler April 17 | Martha Tod Dudman May 1 | all readings from 7-9 pm | Abplanalp Library, University of New England, 716 Stevens Ave, Portland | Free | 207.221.4324
Murder, Mystery & The Mills: The Story Of Mary Bean | Through May 25 | at the Saco Museum, 371 Main St, Saco | 207.283.3861
It was one of those stories that introduced Caswell to De Wolfe, who teaches women’s studies and history at the University of New England and will present the first reading in UNE’s Maine Women Writers Collection series on March 6. In a local rare-bookstore, she earthed up one of two fictional accounts of Mary Bean’s death. The discovery seemed truly serendipitous, De Wolfe writes in an e-mail: “As a scholar and a teacher of women’s history, that was just too intriguing — murder? young women? in my backyard?”
“A little research quickly revealed that the obviously fictional story was actually based on a real death,” she writes. “At that point I thought I was investigating a straightforward story ...You can see from reading the book how complicated (and interesting) the story turned out to be.”
All told, De Wolfe spent six years researching and writing, culminating in the 2007 publication of The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories. In fact, the “other stories” are just the two fictionalized Mary Bean spin-offs, and they’re not nearly as interesting as De Wolfe’s 75-page detailed investigation into who Caswell was before she died, how she ended up in the bungling hands of quack-doctor Joseph Smith, and what she represented for Saco-Biddeford residents after her death.
Using a multitude of primary sources, such as newspaper archives, court documents, and municipal records, De Wolfe introduces a cast of industrial-age characters: the giggly mill girls, the shady doctor, the rough-around-the-edges local cad. Her comprehensive research offers detailed portraits and precise timelines. Even with her historical analysis, De Wolfe keeps the story tight enough to avoid being boring — a common pitfall of historical retellings. And most importantly, where then-observers saw an opportunity to chastise and lecture, De Wolfe finds an opportunity to unravel and explore.
“Putting fact to fiction helped readers see clearly and make sense of the kind of troubling situations that so worried residents of Saco and other burgeoning cities,” De Wolfe writes toward the end of her investigation. In Mary Bean, the author does just the opposite: She sorts out fiction from fact, and in the process, illuminates fascinating historical truths.
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at email@example.com.