The story of Emma Jane Hadley is not a happy one. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to tell it. Emma died in 1957 and was buried in an unmarked grave in New Ashburnham Cemetery, Ashburnham, Massachusetts. She had spent the previous 32 years living in a mental institution. At the time of her death, it is unlikely that any family knew she had passed away. Her children had been taken from her at young ages, her sisters had predeceased her. Her parents were dead. Only her husband still lived, but he may not have been informed of her death. And today was her birthday.
Presumably Emma’s chances in life were good when she was born on December 12, 1884 in Ashburnham, Worcester county, Massachusetts. Her parents were farmers in the area; George Gamaliel Hadley and Mary Eliza Estey. Her father was a civil war veteran. Emma was the 4th child born to George and Mary. They had Almira in 1878, Mary Abby in 1879, George in 1882, Emma in 1884, and Martha in 1886. Baby George died almost a year after his birth and Martha died the same day she was born. Emma, Abby, and Almira remained. Emma was the youngest.
In the 1900 federal census the Hadley family lived in Ashburnham, Mass. Father George was 67, much older than 39 year old Mary Eliza. Daughter Mary A. was 20 and Emma was listed as 15. Almira was 22 and had married a Mr. Vaughn. However, the marriage was not to last. They had married in December of 1899, were not living together in the 1900 census, and by 1906 Mr. Vaughn had remarried. No record has been found of Almira’s divorce and they did not appear to have any children.
‘Tis the season with daughters of age; Mary Abby married Horace Blanchard in September of 1900. Children quickly followed. Emma would be next. On October 13, 1908 Emma Hadley married William F. Bennett in Worcester, Mass. She was 23, he was 24. It was the first marriage for both of them. William was a farmer born in White River Junction, Vermont. He was the son of William Bennett and Hattie Larrabee.
Emma and William made their home in Ashburnham near her family. Her first child was born “Baby Boy” Bennett in March of 1910. By the time of the 1910 federal census the baby had a name, George. Possibly named for Emma’s father. Sister Almira was a divorcee but her whereabouts are unknown in 1910. Mary Abby was living with her parents once more as her marriage too had failed. Mary Abby’s husband and two sons were living separately.
A little over one year from the 1910 census date, Emma gave birth to twins, Ernest and Erving Bennett. They were born in Ashburnham, a little under 10 miles from where George was born in Winchendon. Unfortunately little Erving didn’t live long. On September 10, 1911 the baby was “found dead in bed” according to the death certificate and died from “lack of care…one of twins feeble at birth.”
Emma then entered the baby boom years. One year after Erving’s death, another baby was born. William Edward Bennett joined his two brothers on September 21, 1912 in Ashburnham. And, In 1915, Emma and William had their first daughter, Mildred Bell Bennett. She was born in Ashburnham on George’s 5th birthday, March 25, 1915. In August of 1916, another boy, Leon Francis Bennett, was born to the rapidly growing family. Unfortunately tragedy struck again when, just after her second birthday, Mildred Bell died of brocho pneumonia and whooping cough. She passed away on May 13, 1917 and was buried in Old Cemetery in Ashburnham where brother Erving was also buried. Emma was soon pregnant again, and on July 4, 1918, Irene May Bennett was born.
On February 9, 1919, William Edward died a particularly gruesome death. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was “probably infantile paralysis Acute meningitis. Septic would of face caused from burn by falling on stove.” He was six years old. William was buried in Old Cemetery with his siblings.
Just days after young William’s death the Fitchburg Sentinel reported that a complaint had been filed against William Bennett (the father) for neglect of his children. That complaint was dismissed when a medical examiner testified that he was “feeble minded” and should be committed. It was also recommended that Mrs. Bennett be committed. The last line of the article reads, “The children will be disposed of at a hearing to be held on March 1.” Two days after that, the same newspaper reported that William Bennett had been committed to the “State Colony at Gardner.”
To my knowledge, William Bennett never resided at Gardner State Colony. Emma, however, would spend the rest of her life there. Gardner State Colony, according to the website asylumprojects.org,
"Gardner State Colony was first established in 1902 as a colony for mentally disturbed patients who were able bodied and sufficiently cooperative to engage in construction work for the institution. The hospital served the North Worcester County area, and maintained both agricultural and livestock farm areas which were basically self- supporting. In 1970, a phase-down of in-patient facilities was instituted in the state of Massachusetts, and the Gardner facility was officially closed in 1975."
Beginning with the 1920 federal census, Emma J. Bennett was living as a “patient” in Gardner State Colony in Gardner, Mass. The only Bennett child I’ve found in 1920 is George. He was a ward of the state at age 9 and lived with 3 other wards in Norfolk, Mass at the home of Carl Linde. The whereabouts of the rest of the known living Bennett children (Ernest, Leon, Irene) and that of father William Bennett in 1920 are, as yet, unidentified.
In 1930, according to the federal census, Emma Jane was still living at Gardner State Colony. The name of the institution had officially changed to Gardner State Colony for the Insane. Emma was consistently listed as married in the census records during her time at Gardner. William Bennett was still in Ashburnham. He lived as a boarder with a Levi Rosbury. He was a chairmaker; and he too was listed as married.
As expected, Emma J. Bennett was at Gardner state in the 1940 federal census. But her age was misidentified; she was listed as 40. William Bennett, like his wife, hadn’t moved. He still lived with Levi Rosbury as a boarder. My curiosity can't help but wander. Did he visit his wife often or at all? Did they know what became of their children? How much contact did Emma have with her family during the time she was institutionalized?
Emma Jane Hadley Bennett died on May 15, 1957 from a broken right femur after she fell downstairs. She had been a resident of Gardner State Colony for 32 years, 10 months, and 19 days. William Bennett was identified as her husband on her death certificate. He would live until 1963.
Emma was my husband’s great-grandmother. Her own children didn’t know her, including my husband’s grandfather, George Bennett. Discovering her identity was a hugely rewarding experience as a genealogist, but her story saddened me greatly.
Recently, my husband and I visited Ashburnham to try and find Emma’s grave. What we found, after a call to the local municipal offices, was that Emma was buried in New Cemetery but had no marker. The note on her burial record stated simply, buried “next to the tool house.” Luckily the gentleman on the phone from the municipal office knew where the tool house used to be because it was no longer there. He directed me to the spot where Emma would be.
William, Emma’s husband, is also buried in New Cemetery, although his location was much less descriptive. I like to think he’s buried near her.
Whether the plight of Emma and William was due to mental inability or poverty or something else may never be known – although I will certainly continue to try and find out more. And I am more than happy to do my part to ensure Emma's story is told.
An update on the sisters: Mary Abby had married the second of three husbands by 1920. She would die Mary Abby Hadley Fogg in 1934. She is buried next to her parents in Old Cemetery in Ashburnham. Almira had also remarried, but never had children it seemed. She would live until 1944 and is buried in Ware, Mass.
An update on the children: By 1930, two Bennett children, Irene (11) and Leon (13), and a third Betty (5), were living with William and Evelyn Miller in Framingham, Massachusetts. There were listed as boarders. Those ages for Leon and Irene are off by 1 year based on their birth years of 1918 and 1916 respectively. Things were looking up for George. He lived with the Quint family who took him in in Saugustown, Essex County, Massachusetts. His parents are listed as “unknown.” Ernest Bennett remains unfound in 1930 and 1940 to date.
1940 saw a change for the 3 Bennett children living in Framingham. They were now going by the last name Miller. While not officially adopted, according to the family, they wanted to honor the people who raised them. George was married and living with his in-laws. He had no idea who his parents were.
Copyright (c) 2014, Family at Your Fingertips, Jodi Bash