December 14, 2018
The fact that Sewing Circle member Mary Burnham’s son died in World War I was a sad story. But a trip to the Massachusetts National Guard archive turned the story into a tragedy.
On December 14, 1918, Second Lieutenant Edward Clifton “Clif” Burnham, Jr., died during “rifle practice” at Camp Hancock, Georgia. All three of Mary’s sons, Clif, Malcolm, and Kenneth, enlisted to fight in the Great War. Ken was in the thick of it in the trenches of France, but it was younger brother Clif who died.
The worst part of the story, the part that wasn’t shared with the public, is that the military records show there is more to this sad tale. Clif’s record reads “gunshot wound (Suicide).”
The military cards for World War I were created several years after the war, and although these are official records the cards are not infallible. I’ve done two military history projects and have occasionally found cards that are incorrect. One of Clif’s two cards has his address listed as “Northryn St” rather than 1 Northrop Street, where the family lived. And another official document simply notes Clif “died.” But in military parlance, the word “suicide” can also mean something slightly different from today’s connotation. The card of a Worcester soldier who died in that same war reads, “suicide, result of own misconduct.” That, to modern eyes, looks more like an awful, self-inflicted accident.
But the story goes deeper. The archive holds the letters of both Clif and older brother Ken, a gift that the Burnham family has left to historians. Ken served with the in the 103rd Field Artillery as a Private First Class, and he was in the thick of it. In letters to his family, Ken hints at his location because he knows censors will come down hard if he gives specifics. He also shares details his daily hardships. “The things I’ve seen during the past few days! War is a terrible thing, but the fascination of it all!” Ken wrote excitedly in early 1918, but by fall he is seeing the hum-drum of horror. “The only vegetation which struggles up between the many shell-holes consists of a little ragged grass and a few weeds and thistles. The ground has been pitted and raked up by a withering artillery fire,” he wrote to his family in September, 1918. “I am in a little dugout where the rain drips through at all times, and where the rats scurry around during the night. But we are getting accustomed to the raindrops and the rodents.”
At the end of October that year, Ken is in the middle of a bombardment, possible as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the most deadly battle for American soldiers in our history. His letter is a mess, he says, because “the concussion is strong enough to shake the ink out of this pen of mine.”
Clif, on the other hand, is at an officer training camp in Georgia, and now outranks his two older brothers as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. His last letter, written 11 days before his death, is hopeful and maudlin in turns, and even seems a bit prophetic. “Seriously there is a great chance of you two fellows never having to salute kid brother,” Clif writes to Ken. The war is over, and Clif is trying to figure out the next stage of his life. Before the war, he was a student at Brown University along with both Ken and Mal, and he would have graduated in the class of 1920. Now he has to decide between staying in the National Guard as a reserve officer or “staying in the service and qualifying for a real commission.”
Clif writes about the training he is receiving with the Browning machine gun, “belching forth 600 per minute,” and how he is at a range at Camp Johnson, about 12 miles outside his home base at Camp Hancock. Even though his letter ends with an invitation to fish with Ken in Minnesota after the war, the letter turns dark. “Where there is no action no ink can run and so until I get out of this stagnation my letters will be insipid as the life I live. Your kid brother Clif.”
Whether or not Clif Burnham caused his own death, either accidentally or on purpose, his family must have been devastated. When he was buried in Hopedale Village Cemetery just before Christmas, he was given a hero’s send-off. “The funeral was one of the largest held in Hopedale,” the Milford Daily News reported. The president of Brown University, where all three of Mary’s sons were students, attended and “delivered a fine eulogy.” The Franklin State Guard fired three volleys “and taps were sounded.” Clif’s casket, the paper noted, “was completely surrounded by floral offerings.”
Edward C. Burnham, Jr., the baby of the family, was only 21 years old.
October 27, 2018
On October 23, 1850, Abby Hills Price came to Brinley Hall in Worcester to give a speech at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention. She stood before the crowd of 1,000 to talk about equality – not for herself, but for her daughters. Abby wanted them to have the same opportunities as her sons, and she was not afraid to use the P-word to make her point – prostitution. Even that made Elizabeth Cady Stanton take notice. “She thought the speediest solution of the vexed problem of prostitution was profitable work for the rising generation of girls,” Elizabeth noted about the speech. For Abby, this wasn’t about shock-value – she simply wanted her daughters to be able to work in the world. “Human beings cannot attain true dignity or happiness except by true usefulness. This is true of women as of men. It is their duty, privilege, honor, and bliss to be useful,” she said.
Abby lived in Hopedale, where she had almost total equality with the male Practical Christian members in town. She and her female neighbors voted on local matters and served in local government. They worked in local businesses and had a voice in the local paper. The women of Hopedale were 70 years ahead of the rest of the country.
Abby Hills Price was used to an audience. She cut her teeth on the abolitionist rally circuit, even reading an “effusion” at an 1844 anti-slavery fair where she asked the country to “free these millions from the chain.” Frederick Douglass heard her speak on that day in Upton, at a time when women were told to stay home and keep quiet. In 1837, the General Association of Congregational Ministers here in Massachusetts warned against letting women address the public, which they said would lead to “degeneracy and ruin.” Abby and the other women of Hopedale were undeterred.
In her Worcester speech, Abby went further and her words still echo today. “Woman, in order to be equally independent with man, must have a fair and equal chance,” she told the crowd, and she bemoaned the fact that her daughters, even if they could find work, would make significantly less than her sons. “When she is engaged in the same occupations with men, her remuneration is greatly below what is awarded to her stronger associates.” Today, at a time of the “Me, Too” movement, “stronger” may be an outdated term.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton knew Abby Hills Price and called her “large hearted, and large brained, gentle and strong,” noting that the speech centered on “the injustice of excluding girls from the colleges, the trades and the professions, and the importance of training them to some profitable labor, and thus to protect their virtue, dignity, and self-respect by securing their pecuniary independence.” Abby was speaking as a woman, yes, but also as a mother. “Women at present are cramped, dwarfed, and cowed down. Mothers, with large families of girls, though they may see in them intellect and genius, which, were they boys, might open to them in the future the pathway to independence and perhaps to fame, find that to girls nearly all avenues are closed.”
But Abby couldn’t resist a parting shot, sharing with the audience that she and the women of Hopedale had equality in their “little Commonwealth.” “Where I live,” she said, “all persons have equal rights, in public deliberations. Men and women are alike recognized as having a common interest in public officers and public measures.” Yet she tried to soften the blow for those who opposed a woman’s right to vote. “I have never, in the small State of Hopedale, heard of one home being neglected, or one duty less thoroughly attended to by allowing women an equal voice.”
October 9, 2018
As the second week of October, 1918, began, the saying “Death is my neighbor now” could not have been more apt.
By this time 100 years ago, Hopedale had seen its fifth confirmed influenza death, plus two more deaths that could be attributed to the flu. Three of the seven deaths were workers from Draper Corporation.
But the adjacent town of Milford was reeling from the pandemic. By October 9, 1918, Milford, a town roughly five times the size of Hopedale, had seen 57 confirmed influenza deaths, plus another eight deaths to pneumonia which was often the end result of “the grip,” and three stillborn babies. Five of these deaths were men who worked at Drapers, along with three employees of the Hopedale Manufacturing Company. All but one of these Hopedale workers lived in Prospect Heights in Milford.
Hopedale and Milford have a shared history. Hopedale was once part of Milford – founded by Adin Ballou and his Practical Christian followers in 1842, Hopedale was technically a section of Milford until establishing its own town status in 1886. Prospect Heights existed in that blur of town lines. Just over the hill from the Freedom and Northrop Street intersection in Hopedale and on the other side of Route 140, this area was built by the Draper Company to house immigrant workers. And house them it did. The list of the dead in those first horrible weeks of the pandemic reads like a ship’s manifest, with many Portuguese on the roster – names like Antonio Diaz, Albino Consalves Rua, and Giavanno Mario Sebastiano. Many of these men were so new to the United States that little can be found to tell their story – except for the fact that they died of Spanish flu.
Domingos Cardosa was an exception. Born in 1883, Domingos came to the U.S. from the Azores with his mother, Maria, at the age of 7. She had her hands full – Maria brought five children aboard the ship, the youngest 10 months old, and she was travelling without a husband to help.
Domingos left a gift to us and to his new country – on September 12 of 1918 he filled out a draft registration card. It’s hard to remember that during the horror of this flu, the Great War was raging in France, and Domingos was ready to do his duty. On this card, we can see that Domingos was living at 4 Prospect Heights with his “nearest relative” Anna De Almcida – his younger sister, now a married women. He described himself as tall and slender with brown eyes and dark hair. He worked as a laborer for Drapers and was 34 years old.
In less than two weeks, Domingos would be dead, yet another flu victim among the dozens falling in Milford. The day before, Antonio Diaz from 15 Prospect Heights had died, the first in the neighborhood to fall. Less than a week later, Albino Consalves Rua would also die. He, too, filled out a draft registration form, telling us he was not married but had served in the Portuguese military for three months as a private. Short and slender with brown eyes and black hair, Albino was only 26 when he died.
Nine neighbors from Prospect Heights died from the complications of influenza in those few short weeks before the sun set on October 9, including other Hopedale workers. But this flu did not discriminate among these immigrants – wives Clementina Rosa Mendes, 23, and Guilosia Chaves, 24, lived next door to each other and died the same day.
All over town, the death toll would rise…
October 5, 2018
All of the victims of the influenza pandemic of 1918 were innocent – this was the flu, not the war, and this pandemic killed people simply living their everyday lives. But this week in Hopedale history, a truly innocent victim was taken by this flu.
On October 5, 1918, a baby was stillborn. Hazel Barbour Davenport, the mother of the unnamed boy, was suffering from influenza and died of Broncho pneumonia on October 13, just eight days after her son. The local newspaper at the time appears to have gotten the facts of this tragedy wrong. The Milford Gazette noted Hazel’s death – she was 27, the wife of George Albert Davenport, and “had been married about three years and leaves besides her husband and mother, two small daughters, one only a few days old.”
But the death records are clear – Hazel lost her son before she lost her life. Her daughter Dorothy was 4 and little Pearl was about 18 months old, having been born on May 3, 1917. It’s hard to blame the newspaper – Milford was also in the grip of the flu pandemic and losing people at an alarming rate. By October 5, when Hazel’s son was stillborn, four children had already been stillborn in Milford, at least one of those confirmed as a result of the flu. Grace Ruggiero died the day after her son was stillborn, and this was not uncommon – during the flu pandemic, women miscarried “with shocking frequency.” In this short span of time, Milford had lost 27 children, most to the flu including several babies under the age of two. The newspaper can be forgiven for not getting the Hopedale facts quite straight.
Hazel was not the first woman to die in town because of this pandemic. Gertrude May Stevens Cook, a housewife, died the day after Hazel’s baby. The interesting thing about the deaths is that the women both lived on Inman Street – in fact their families lived on either side of the same Draper duplex. It was not uncommon for people living in close proximity to die from the flu. The theory of the existence of viruses was new at the time – the electron microscope had yet to be invented and the virus was still invisible to the human eye – but the virus did spread within pockets of the community. Abner Archibald McNeill, a butcher living on Park Street, was one of the first to die of the flu in town on September 30. Jennie Petter, a Swiss governess living a few doors down at 5 Park Street, died barely 10 days later. Because Jennie died in the “Emergency Hospital” in Milford, she is also listed in those death records.
But proximity can be deceiving, especially in a town as small as Hopedale. Another young mother, Assunta Santilli, lost her infant just as Hazel had. Assunta’s son was stillborn on October 11, while Assunta herself lived for 10 more days before dying of influenza. The family was from Italy and lived on Home Park Avenue, off Mendon Street. Then another baby died, barely half a mile away. Frederich Kempton was only 5 months old when Broncho pneumonia from the “Grip” took him on October 24. He had been living with his family, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Kempton, at 16 Bancroft Park, an easy walk from the Santilli home through Hopedale Village Cemetery. And the flu pandemic wasn’t over yet.
September 18, 2018
Love. Death. Abolition. Work. Equality. And…sewing needles?
For more than 150 years, women in Hopedale gathered together and discussed these topics – and many more – while working on textile projects in a group they called the Hopedale Sewing Circle. Together they forged a strong bond, and left an overwhelming record of their deeds, accomplishments, and other happenings in town.
In the Hopedale Women’s History Project, we have created a new circle, a fellowship of researchers and residents who will assist with exploring and transcribing the story of Hopedale through the words of the women who called this place home.
If you like history, research, or genealogy, or if you are simply a fan of Hopedale or women’s history, become part of the Hopedale Women’s History Project. The record of these women spans almost 150 years – it’s going to take a community to tell the story about the women of this town.