SINS OF OUR MOTHERS AS AN
AMERICAN OEDIPUS MYTH
Looking at the Facts Concerning Emeline
Because I've done the research, rather than toss it out, I'm going to take the time here to deconstruct the making of the myth of an American Oedipus tale, the story of Emeline Bachelder. The purported circumstances of her life were made into a PBS documentary for The American Experience, in 1989, titled Sins of Our Mothers, the producer being David Hoffman, the director/writer being Rocky (Matthew) Collins. The Sins of Our Mothers remains popular, many years later. It has an 8 rating on IMDB and has generated over 760,000 views where it now resides on Youtube, with nearly 3000 comments on how wonderful the story is, and what a marvelous storyteller is Nettie Mitchell, who brought Emeline's grievous tale to light. Historical Advisors featured in the film are Nancy Cott, Billie Gammon and Paul Hudon. Research on the story, for the film, was done by Sherry Abaldo, Josephine Patterson, Kent Allen, Audrey Bamford, Inga Carboni, Tara Dooley, Katie Reinhart, with thanks given to, among others, the Fayette Historical Society and the Camden-Rockport Historical Society. I relate these names just to make one aware that research on Emeline was done for the documentary. My intent is not to belittle the film, but to update the facts and wonder at how the myth came to be, which the film has helped to popularly cement as truth, and question the rather sensational title given the film.
Nettie Mitchell's Seed Story of Emeline
This story I'm going to relate has several tiers. The first tier is Nettie Mitchell, who in the mid 1970s excitedly related to documentarian, David Hoffman, the tale of Emeline of Fayette, Maine. Nettie had known Emeline when she was a little girl and wanted to "do right" by Emeline by exposing her secret, how the town had mistreated Emeline and let her die in poverty for having inadvertently been the American Oedipus' mother. As Nettie told the tale in the 1970s, Emeline was born in 1816 to a poor family that had many, many children, too many to feed. One day some people from Lynn, Massachusetts came by and, noting the family's poverty, suggested they send 13-year-old Emeline to the mill in Lynn. Emeline would not only no longer be a financial drain on the family, she would be able to aid her family by sending her income to them. Emeline goes to the mill, but when she is there she attracts the attention of the mill owner's young, wealthy son. Innocent Emeline "yields" to him and has a child at 14. She is convinced to sell the infant to a childless couple, who lives near the mill, in exchange for payment for her board and a ride home. Emeline goes home and tells no one what happened at the mill because of the shame of it. And, because of the shame of it, though she is a beautiful girl, she refuses the attentions of all male suitors. Then, one day, a man building highways comes to town. Emeline is in her early 30s. He is 14 years younger. Despite the age difference, they fall in love and marry. After a year of happiness, relations come from Lynn and recognize Emeline's husband as her son. He returns to Lynn and Emeline is tragically ostracized by kinfolk and the town. Her parents and siblings, who live across the road from her, won't cross the street to see her. Emeline, in her 30s, is left to seed and till her fields by herself. She falls into desperate poverty. When she is old, after a hard winter, she dies of starvation.
The Story of Emeline Becomes a Documentary
and Undergoes Some Changes
The second tier of this story is the way the tale of Emeline changed when it became a documentary. Because it made for a better historical fit, rather than Emeline going to work at Lynn, she was reasoned to have labored at the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. I know a little something about the Lowell Mills as an ancestress of mine briefly worked in at the mill after the death of her father--I even have a copy of an employment record for her at the mill--and, having done a little research previously on Lowell Mills and its employment of young women, this does make sense, but there is no record for Emeline having worked at the mill as these records were long ago destroyed. Research for the documentary also uncovered that when she was about 28 years of age, Emeline had married a George Chamberlain and had a son with him. The documentary states they live together for 20 years in the home of Emeline's family before George "disappears". Emeline becomes a pauper for a time, with her son, Gustavus. The town buys him a pair of shoes, and when she is sick the town is called upon to repay an individual who had paid for her care. Then, when Emeline is in her early 60s, Leonard Gurney shows up. There is a marriage record to prove he existed. He is much younger than her. After they are married, his people come from Massachusetts and recognize Emeline as his mother. Oops! Leonard leaves and Emeline from then on lives in utter poverty, ostracized by all.
Emeline was perceived as such a "bad" person that she rests in an unknown grave, not permitted internment with fellow Christians, her burial site even purposefully--so it's said--walled off from the cemetery by a wall, her grave likely now lying under a road that runs by a cemetery.
People love this story. In fact, in 1980, the story was directed to Judith Rossner by David Hoffman, and she wrote a fictionalized version of it titled, Emmeline. Judith also wrote Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
The documentary, throughout, treats the story as true and focuses upon the harshness of this shunning in difficult rural Maine, and the problem of Emeline having been found guilty, by the town, for this unintentional compound sin of giving birth out of wedlock and then marrying her son. It has the primary interview with Nettie, and an interview with a daughter and a niece of Nettie, as well as a June Murphy who was born 103 years before and had heard of Emeline and that she was "bad". It relates that stories were passed from parent to child about Emeline and she became a cautionary tale, but exactly what stories were told, if they were the same as what Nettie knew, isn't clear as the documentary also states the town has been reluctant to talk about the incest openly, and only came around to any open discussion with the publication of Judith's book, and the making of the documentary.
At the very end, the documentary makes the concession that we may never know if Emeline was shunned because she married her own son or because she was poor, but the story Nettie told of Emeline lives on beyond Nettie's death and because of it Emeline is more a part of her town now than when she was alive.
The once ostracized Emeline became the town's most well-known citizen.
Problematic Facts That Appear to Deny the Folk History
Here is the third tier of the story. When I heard about Emeline, my reaction was, "I don't think so. This is a muddled relating that sounds like a fable, and likely is going to turn out to be, as with many (not all) genealogical stories, untrue. And this was not even a story handed down by family but one given by a person unrelated to Emeline."
Yes, records never tell a full story of an individual's life, but in Emeline's case there are other records that exist on her and create some problems. What follows, the third tier of this story, is very dry reading. There is no drama. But it will show that Leonard Gurney was not Emeline's son. At least it will do that.
According to my own research, Emeline was born in 1816 to Aaron Bachelder and Sophia Gould in Fayette Maine. She appears to have been the fourth of five children. Older siblings Henrietta, David S. and Lucy were born between 1810 and 1814, then in 1818 a last sister by the name of Hannah was born.
The Bachelder family was in New Hampshire before coming to Maine. The 1830 census shows, aside from the parents, one male and one female between the ages of 10 and 14 living in the household, as well as a female between the ages of 15 and 19. We have no way of knowing who these children are but the youngest girl is likely Hannah and the older girl may or may not be Emeline.
By 1840, the Aaron Bachelder family is in Maine. Besides Aaron and his wife, Sophia, there are two females between the ages of 20 and 29 living in the household. These would likely be Hannah and Emeline.
There are Lowell, Massachusetts connections within the family itself. In 1842, David S. Bachelder, Emeline's older brother, married Climena Pearson in Lowell. They will have several children and remain in Lowell throughout David's life, he dying in Lowell in 1882. Beginning with the 1860 census we find David and Climena keeping a boarding house for mill girls. I don't know if this changed over time, but in 1870 they were keeping the 11 Massachusetts Corporation boarding house.
In 1844, at 28, Emeline marries George Chamberlain, who is 38. His first wife, Mary Ann Maxey, had died in 1834, after bearing children Mary Ann in 1830 and Charles Henry in 1833. There may be a second marriage to a Sarah but I'm uncertain about this one and its children, which are a little problematic, so will leave it out. George had been born in the town of Belgrade, which is in the county of Kennebec, the same as Fayette.
In 1847, David S. Bachelder, Emeline's brother, is listed in Lowell, Massachusetts City Documents as being one of four men who compose the Common Council for Ward 1.
In 1850, the line up of families in Maine is a David Bachelder who is married to Hannah and has a real estate value of $1200, Aaron Bachelder and Sophia, and a Davis Mosher and Betsy, he being worth $500. In the Aaron Bachelder houshold, Aaron and Sophia are 69. Living with them is George Chamberlain, 44, and Emeline, 33, and their son Gustavis, who is 6. Hannah, Emeline's younger sister, also lives with the family, as yet unmarried. George is a shingle weaver. They are on page 9. What happened to George Chamberlain's son by Mary Ann, after he married Emeline, that son only 17? George's son, Charles H., 17, is over on page 5 living with Aaron Bachelder's brother, Allen, who is 64, and his wife, Sally, who is 62. So, Emeline's uncle had taken in her stepson.
One will recollect that Emeline had an older brother named David S. who moved to Lowell. He is not the David Bachelder in the above census. The David Bachelder living next to Aaron Bachelder and his family in 1850 is a nephew of Aaron Bachelder's, a son of his brother Nathaniel and Jane L. Morse. He was born in 1816. That family lives beside Emeiine in all the censuses.
In 1852, Emeline's father, Aaron dies.
In 1860, in Fayette, the line-up on the census is Davis and Betsy Mosier, then Amos and Hannah Mosier. Hannah is Emeline's youngest sister who has finally married, which is not that extraordinary for the time, actually, that a woman might be unmarried into her thirties. In the same household we find Emaline, 44, who is given as doing "house work", and her son, Gustave, 16, who is farming. Davis' real estate is worth $2000 and his personal estate is worth $300. Then next to them is again David Bachelder, 44, and his family. His real estate is worth $1400 and his personal estate is $500. These families are financially doing about average amongst their community, financially, and even far better than some. Emeline's mother, Sophia, appears to have returned to New Hampshire, and in Allenstown is living in the household of John Perkins 54, and Nancy G., 52. Her personal estate is $700. John's real estate is work $3000 and his personal estate is worth $1000.
What happened to George Chamberlain, Emeline's husband who "disappeared"? He has moved to the neighboring county of Aroostook where he is living with his son Charles H. Charles H. has a real estate value of what looks like $225 and a personal estate of $75.
In 1864, Emeline's mother dies.
In 1870, in Fayette, we find Davis and Betsy Mosier (real estate value $800, personal estate value $680) heading up a household that includes son Amos and his wife Hannah, who is Emeline's younger sister, and their children. Emeline lives in this household, age 54. David Bacheller, 55, still lives next door. His real estate is valued at $1800 and his personal estate at $1155. This is on page 5. Emeline's son, Gustavus, also lives in Fayette. He's found on page 8, married now to Eliza Reynolds from New Hampshire. He is 24 and she is 25. They have a daughter. As for George Chamberlain, the estranged husband of Emeline, he is still living with his son, Charles H., over in Sherman, Aroostook, Maine. Charles H. is now married and has begun a family. His real estate is worth $500 and his personal estate is worth $500.
I've seen some give Emeline as living instead with an older Francis Bachelder in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1870, but they are in error. That is another Bachelder family and the Emeline Bachelder is not Emeline Bachelder Chamberlain.
In 1878 Emeline marries Leonard Gurney, who in the documentary is stated to be her son, 14 years her junior. Her first husband is still alive, and it may be that Emeline knows as he is in the area. Did they divorce? I don't know. I've seen other records from the 1800s where a woman gives herself as widowed when her husband is still alive and she would have had to have been aware of the fact. We might imagine that Emeline and her first husband had a mutual separation that was most conveniently handled in a similar manner. There's no reason to burden Emeline with the sin of bigamy.
The 1880 census in Fayette gives us the line-up of Lucy (Lumbert) Bacheller, the widow of David Bacheller/Bachelder who had been living in the Bachelder/Mosier/Chamberlain grouping. This is a 2nd wife of David's and he's left Lucy with a new crop of children, Eddie F, David G, Reuel E, and Nathan. A couple households over is Davis Mosher with his wife, Betsy, and son Amos with Hannah G., Emeline's sister. 3 households down from them we find Emeline C. She is 64, and is living with husband Leonard Gurney.
Leonard Gurney is not 14 years her junior. Leonard Gurney is 76, 12 years older than Emeline. Lenoard Gurney was born about 1804 in Freeport, Cumberland, Maine. He first married Rachel Byram, and between 1827 and 1848 they had children Charles S., Amanda, Mary E., George, Hester A., Emily F., Thomas, and Henry Franklin. Rachel died in 1866. Leonard Gurney may have married a second time as in 1870 he is in Hallowell, Kennebec, Maine, a day laborer, living with a 58 year old Sarah, but I'm unable to find marriage data on that.
The household of Leonard Gurney and Emeline is shown in an 1879 land ownership map of Fayette. They are living beside D. Mosher and Mrs. Batchelder (Lucy).
George Chamberlain, Emeline's first husband, is still living over in Sherman, Aroostook,Maine, in the household of his daughter-in-law, Caroline, his son Charles having died.
David S. Bachellor/Bachelder, Emeline's older brother, is still in Lowell, Massachusetts, on the 30th page of the census. He and his wife still keep a boarding house for girls working at the cotton mill.
By 1880, Emeline's son, Gustavus, has also now moved to Lowell. He is on the 34th page of the census. He is a teamster and he and his wife, Elizabeth, now have children Grace and Charles.
There is no 1890 census, so between 1880 and 1897 is a blank. 1897 is the year that Emeline died, on October 9. The death record has her listed as a widow and a housekeeper. The cause of her death was dysentery. She was 81. Emeline is not the only person to die of dysentery. A cursory glance through records showed that a Batchelder relation will also die of dysentery in November of that year.
In 1901 in Lowell, MA, Emeline's son, Gustavus Chamberlain, dies at 55 of La Grippe.
In 1920, the Nettie Mitchell who told the story for the documentary is 33, married to James, and lives next door to David G. Bachuller, 47, and his wife Lillian M., 52, Eddie Bachuller, 38, and his wife Flossie. David and Eddie are children of the Lucy Lumbert Bachuller who had been married to the David Bachuller who consistently lived beside Emeline, a cousin of hers. Nettie's maiden name is Plant. In 1900 her family, that of Walter Plant, was living about 5 households from the Bachullers in the census.
What We Can and Can't Gather From the Facts, and How the Story of Nettie Becomes a Cautionary Tale Against Leaving One's Birth Home, Moving to the City and Mixing with Powerful Mill Owners, as Well as a Tale About Unavoidable Destiny
To review, having looked at the records, there is nothing that begins to line up with Nettie's story. Instead of Emeline marrying once, in her early 30s, to a man who turned out to be her son, then being ostracized for the remainder of her life, Emeline married twice and had a son by her first marriage who grew to adulthood in her home. According to Nettie's story, Emeline would have been ostracized by her family and the entire community from her early 30s on, when this isn't what happened. According to the census records, Emeline, through 1870, rather than ostracized, was always living with family. First she lives with her parents, even when married, then after the death of her father she lives always in the household of her sister and her family.
The documentary, having discovered that Emeline had married twice, reimagines the scenario so that instead of a still young Emeline having married her son, she instead does so in her 60s, wedding Leonard Gurney, but according to the records he was 12 years older than her and was a widower. Leonard is also not from Lowell, Massachusetts, he is from Maine. Instead, Emeline's son, Gustavus Chamberlain, as an adult, went to Lowell, Massachusetts where his uncle David S. Buchalder was already living since at least 1842.
It seems peculiar, considering the significance of the mill to Emeline's story, as told by Nettie, that it's never mentioned that when Emeline was about 26 her brother moved to Lowell and that he and his wife would keep a boarding house for mill girls there, nor does Emeline's son by George Chamberlin ever factor into the story though Gustavus grew up in Fayette then went to Lowell as an adult.
Dry records are, of course, not at all the whole story of an individual's life, but when Nettie's initial story of Emeline's life is so wrong, one has to wonder what went into the creation of it and why. Through research I've also found that Nettie's mother was an Elisabeth Els, and when she was 8 years of age, in 1870, her family was living in the same area as Emeline, about 5 households from her. Elisabeth and her mother moved away after this and are in the next county, Androscoggin, in 1880, but Elisabeth (Els) Plant is back in the same area in Fayette in 1900 with her husband and children, including Nettie. Elisabeth didn't die until the mid 1900s, so she had plenty of time to pass along to Nettie, who was 10 when Emeline died, a version of the story that included George Chamberlain, and son Gustavus, and a Leonard Gurney who was 12 years older than Nettie. But that obviously didn't happen. Instead, even though Nettie's mother lived near Emeline in her youth, Nettie cherished the belief that Emeline only married once, to her own son, in her 30s, that she had no other children and no other marriages, and that from her 30s on she was alone, abandoned by family for her sins, ferociously disdained.
The Oedipus angle is fascinating. Oedipus' father, the King, sent Oedipus away to be killed by another rather than carry the guilt himself. He did this because of the oracle that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Rather than Oedipus being killed as his birth father had intended, Oedipus' life is spared and he is even taken in by another king and queen. When Oedipus grows to adulthood, the same oracle is related to him, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid the tragedy, he leaves home. He defeats a sphinx that had been plaguing his birth land. He kills his real father at a crossroads, having no idea who he is. As a reward for having saved the area from the sphinx, Oedipus marries the queen, his mother, having no idea who she is, nor does she know who he is. But the community is then visited again with more disaster due to this unnatural marriage. When the truth of Oedipus' paternity is revealed, his mother commits suicide, and Oedipus blinds himself. Thereafter, Oedipus spends the rest of his life wandering, homeless.
With the American Oedipus story, Nellie has a child by what amounts to a prince, the son of the head of a cotton mill where she has gone to work. Rather than being 15, which is the age at which Lowell accepted girls to work at the mills, in the story she is 13. In the story, she is related as having been ostracized at the cotton mill, as she was a girl from the sticks, unlike the others, but if she did go to Lowell, there would have been many girls there from rural areas. It seems that almost as soon as she arrives she becomes pregnant, "sells" her son, and then returns home. She had been alienated at the cotton mill, and now she is alienated at home by her personal guilt and shame, so the subject of our story is a woman who is not only ostracized later, but her entire life. Somehow, the forbidden son, who is building a highway (remember, Oedipus killed his father at a crossroads), appears in this community, and after years of loneliness and guilt he is the only one for Emeline, the one who sweeps her off her feet and captures her heart. They marry. Their happiness is destroyed when his relations from Lowell come to visit and, shocked, reveal that Emeline has married her own son! What happens to the son isn't important to the story. He disappears, returning to Lowell, perhaps suffering no consequences as he has been saved by his family. Emeline, however, is banned from society for the rest of her life, like Oedipus. The fact that Emeline was supposedly impregnated by a virtual "prince" further complicates things, as her association with the prince was one that could have raised Emeline and her family out of poverty had they been married, but because they weren't married it becomes the story of city life and wealthy factory owners having taken advantage of and ruined a young country girl. However, that isn't punishment enough. Fate demands that Emeline end up accidentally marrying a son she gave away and does not recognize. She is cursed, certainly, and must die a thoroughly ruined woman.
If only Emeline hadn't gone away from Fayette to work at the Lowell mill and stay in a boarding house for mill girls. Right? Never mind her brother later going and operating a boarding house for mill girls with his wife. And never mind Emeline's real son, who was born in Fayette, going to Lowell as well for work, taking his family with him. If only Emeline, who stayed in Fayette until her death, hadn't ever supposedly left Fayette as a child and gone to Lowell, she wouldn't have become cursed, a warning to others, and then (plot twist) saved by Nettie who reveals it's both the mill and the town that sinned against Emeline, and Emeline, saved, becomes the most famous person in Fayette.
To review the facts as opposed to Nettie's story, rather than Emeline having and quietly giving away a child at the mill town, returning home and not marrying until she was at least in her early 30s, then accidentally marrying her son, who is recognized by a relative who visits from the mill town, Emeline married at 28 and immediately had a son. Emeline's brother was already living in the mill town and will be found on the census later running a boarding house for mill girls. Emeline marries again, when she is about 62, to a man 12 years older than herself, and her son from her first marriage, Gustave, also moves to the mill town with his family.
I imagine that Nettie Mitchell fully believed the story that she told. I'm just curious how she was raised to believe that story, and also wonder what she was told as opposed to what she accumulated by hearsay as a child and may have interpreted it as best she could as a child. I've read a good many remarks by others that, due her presentation in the documentary, praise Nettie as being a wonderful storyteller, members of the audience who take her story to heart and believe she was righting a great wrong. The manner in which the documentary was presented, individuals don't read it as leaving room for the story to be possibly false. In fact, though Nettie may have been a good storyteller, the facts as she gave them don't match the recorded history and have, indeed, the kind of mythic ring that should cause one to wonder as to their reliability. Emeline may have had a secret, but it wasn't this myth as told by Nettie, by which she became a cautionary tale about staying home where one belongs and not moving to the mill town, as did her son, and as did her brother who later ran a boarding house for mill girls.
November 2019, based on post from a number of months earlier. Approx 4361 words or about 7 single-spaced pages. A 33 minute read at 130 wpm.