Once in awhile, a story will grab my attention, and I can’t stop thinking about it until my research brings me to a satisfactory ending. That’s what happened with a story I read about a girl named Mary.
Mary isn’t a blood relation of mine. According to ancestry.com, she was the wife of my first cousin, three times removed. (To clarify, she’s my 2x great grandmother’s nephew’s wife—not confusing at all, right? Got it? OK. Moving along…)
Mary’s story first caught my attention several years ago when I first read a newspaper article from January of 1906 in which Helen Ekin Starrett (my great great grandmother) identified a body at Chicago’s Provident Hospital. It was heartbreaking, and I always wanted to know the whole story. Mary is a common name, and with so many repeating names in my family, things can get confusing. Now that I know what really happened, I think it’s an important story to tell—and an important learning opportunity for everyone. The takeaway is monumental.
Today, approximately 19 million Americans suffer from depression— almost 9.5% of the population. Depression isn’t a new disease, and for those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, it can be all consuming—especially when/if someone doesn’t have have an informed and compassionate support system and appropriate medical intervention. Despite being the leading factor in 2/3 of all suicides, depression is still very misunderstood. Prejudice and discrimination towards sufferers have been reported since ancient times, and misconceptions often lead to worsening of physical and emotional symptoms.
In the mid to late 1800s, doctors had a relatively limited arsenal of medicinal options. Drugs and homeopathic remedies containing opiates were prescribed and dispensed for everything from asthma and ear wax to dysentery and hemorrhoids, and many doctors thought they were logical and medically appropriate. At first, little was known about the addictive qualities of the drug, and many doctors thought it was their duty to relieve their patients’ pain. One of the ailments frequently treated with opiates was depression. When and if someone sought medical help for their depression, an opiate such as morphine might have been prescribed. Little was known about the causes of depression, and therapies were experimental, to say the least. Opiates were most liberally prescribed to women, and for a range of complaints, including “female troubles,” hysteria, mood-swings, fainting spells, and depression.
Most morphine addictions are thought to have been initiated by a physician prescriptions. Someone suffering with depression might reluctantly seek the help of a doctor and find relief in the opiate he prescribed. But, as use continued, this relief would’ve undoubtedly been harder to achieve, requiring increased doses. If a physician limited or stopped renewing a patient’s prescription, a “patent medicine” containing opiates could easily be obtained from any number of sources. Morphine addiction was even more shameful than depression, so hiding the secret was paramount. A multitude of “addiction cures” were sold through mail order catalogs, but these “cures” were often heavily laced with opiates, even though they were wrongly labeled as morphine free. Advertising laws were even more lax than labeling and drug laws.
The use of morphine patent remedies were also used by middle and upper class women as an alternative to alcohol because it was easier to hide. The Temperance movement was strong, and intoxicants of any sort were frowned upon in many circles. Someone wanting to escape from depression or another ailment could self medicate without the social stigma associated with alcohol.
Though I haven’t been able to find Mary’s death certificate, ancillary evidence adds up to support my theory that she suffered from severe depression that was exacerbated by repeated losses, misunderstanding, social stigma, medical misdiagnoses, and self-treatment. After 110 years I think Mary deserves to come out of the shadows. After 110 years, I want Mary to know that there’s someone out there who knows a little bit about what happened to her— what may have been going on inside her head— was not her fault. Depression is an ugly beast, and it is only with compassion and understanding that we can combat its disastrous effects. It may be too late for Mary, but it’s not too late for the millions of others who are currently fighting the battle.
Mary Pattengill Baney was born in Gratiot County Michigan, in the village of Ithaca, to Louise Smith and David Baney. Her parents were from upstate New York, and were among Michigan’s first settlers. Big brother Glenn was born in 1865, and on May 25, 1867, Mary (a.k.a. Mai) Pattengill Baney was born. Sadly, before her first birthday, David was killed by a falling tree in the pine forest where he worked as a foreman. On December 10, 1868, Louise remarried one of Ithaca’s foundering settlers, John Jeffrey. Two more children, John and Ira, came along, and John increased his original 1855 farm from 1,150 acres to 5,000. Seven years later, John passed away, leaving Louise a widow for a second time, only this time she had four children under the age of eight. In 1879, Louise married businessman and local politician, Joseph H Seaver. Mary may not have been there during all the years of change in her family as she was educated at the prestigious Detroit Home and Day School run by Miss Ella Leggitt.
Mary’s middle name was Pattengill, a detail that’s hard for me to overlook. Her parents came from upstate New York and relocated to Michigan, just like the Pattengill family Aunt Annie married into. I assume that the family may have been possibly connected to the Ann Arbor Pattengills, thus linking Mary’s family to that of her future inlaws’.
Matthew Herbert Allison was born in Xenia, Ohio, on Halloween, 1867, to cordage merchant Matthew Corry Allison and gifted writer/poet Frances Rachel Ekin. Herbert, as he was called, was the second son for the couple, who’s son James Ekin Allison arrived two years earlier. Less than a year after Herbert was born, they rounded out their family with daughter Fredericka Lee. Herbert graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, an excellent east coast boarding school he attended for several years.
On March 24 1887, the 19 year olds were married in Ithaca, Michigan, by minister DM Christy. According to some accounts, the couple had a rough start to their married life, losing two sons in infancy. But happier times would come. On Christmas Day in 1890, Herbert and Mary welcomed a daughter they named Dorothy Frances. Sometime before the 1900 census, work took the family to New York City. Herbert’s mother, Frances, accompanied the family and they set up household in Brooklyn.
Sadly, in October of 1901, Herbert unexpectedly passed away from a tragic bout with nephritis at the age of 33. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St Louis, Missouri. Mary was left a widow with their ten-year old to support on her own. For the next few years, it appears as though the two stayed in St Louis with Fredericka and George Whitelaw, Herbert’s sister and brother in law.
In 1905, Dorothy stayed with Fredericka and George in St Louis while Mary moved in with Herbert’s aunt, Helen Ekin Starrett, in Chicago. Frances’ sister owned and operated a renowned school for girls in the Kenwood suburb of the city, and Mary could live at the school while she took stenography courses. Mrs Starrett was known throughout the country as an expert in education, manners, and women’s rights. Throughout her family, she was known to have a soft heart and an open door.
Fourteen years earlier, Helen Ekin Starrett had been left a widow with seven children to support, so it is no surprise that she took Mary in while she got back on her feet. However, even though Helen’s door was open to her niece (in law), she had some rules on which she absolutely would not compromise. She was unbending when it came to manners and etiquette and education, and under no circumstances would she tolerate intoxicants of any sort. In addition to her suffrage work, Helen had stumped for the temperance movement. Liquor and drugs were dealbreakers. Mrs Starrett was also a “look on the bright side,” no nonsense, no pity, “don’t wallow in your sorrows” kind of woman. She was not big on outward displays of emotion, believing that a stiff upper lip and a tough exterior were the best policies, especially for girls. She was tough, but she was fair and gentle, and all of her students and wards adored and admired her. According to the article that ran in the January 30, 1906 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Helen had discovered Mary’s substance use, and spoke with her about it. Mrs Starrett and Mary’s friends all urged her to return to Ithaca so that her mother could help, but she would not listen. Following their talk, Mary disappeared.
On Monday, January 29, 1906, 36 year old Mary dressed in a fashionable brown skirt with a light, fancy waist, and a matching jacket. She wore a coordinating hat, trimmed with a green feather, and carried a black muff to protect her soft, white, hands from the cold. At about 7:30pm, she entered Kerwin & Johnson’s Saloon at 3701 Cottage Grove Avenue in an attempt to find shelter from the weather. Without ordering anything from the bar, she went straight to a back room where she tried to sit down, but lost her balance and fell to the floor, unconscious. The bartender saw her fall and tried to help, but found her passed out with a partially filled medicine bottle and a morphine tablet on the tile next to her. In her hand was a piece of paper with a name and telephone number written on it. She had no identification, and the name on the paper did not match the phone number.
The bartender called two physicians who practiced nearby, but they were unable to revive her. They called an ambulance, and she was taken to Provident Hospital where she she quietly passed away three hours later. She never regained consciousness. the next day, one of the doctors said that her death appeared to be a suicide, unless she’d been so intoxicated that she accidentally overdosed. Cook County Coronor Peter Hoffman conducted an autopsy, and determined her death to be from “self administered narcotic poison that had been ingested with suicidal intent.”
By the next morning, Helen learned of the incident at Kerwin & Johnson’s Saloon and made her way to Provident Hospital where she identified the body of her sister’s daughter in law. She notified Mary’s mother and stepfather in Michigan, and Mr Seaver traveled to Chicago to return his stepdaughter’s remains to Ithaca.
“During the latter part of her stay with me, I discovered she was using intoxicants. When I remonstrated with her, she left my home and protection. Several times afterward, I persuaded her to return to the home of her mother in Ithaca, Michigan, but she always broke away from her mother’s care and returned to this city (Chicago). She was a capable stenographer, but could not keep a place on account of her lapses from sobriety. It is the tragic end of a once beautiful woman…” — Helen Ekin Starrett, Chicago Daily Tribune, Wednesday, January 30, 1906, page 2.
Joseph Seaver arrived in Chicago on January 31, 1906 and claimed Mary’s body. She was buried in the Old Plat (200-5) in the Ithaca Cemetery. As other members of her immediate family passed away, they were buried nearby. Today, her headstone, carved with the words “Ma Allison,” is near those of her mother and her brother, Glenn.
Mary’s daughter remained with her aunt and uncle until she reached adulthood, married, and started a family of her own. I know a little about their stories, but they’re not my stories to tell. I’ll save those for another time, hopefully after I’ve met some of them. I’ve got some messages out in cyberspace, so I hope that day will come. I would dearly love to meet them because I know Helen and Frances would be tickled at the thought that their descendants became friends.
Whether Mary’s death was a suicide or an unintentional overdose can’t ever be known, and, in my opinion, doesn’t even matter. Regardless of her intent that evening in 1906, she deserves to be remembered. Her name and her memory are worthy of being placed in the family tree without stigma or shame. She was omitted from historical accounts of her mother’s life, and her fate may or may not have been kept a secret. (Personally, I’d rather read about it like this than in the newspaper articles from the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune provided no context and no sympathy, so the accounts are cold, jarring, and distant.) Had I not stumbled upon these upsetting news accounts of the incident, I never would have known anything about her, and I never would have pursued her story. As someone who has openly battled severe depression myself, though never suicidal, I can sympathize with her struggle. My heart aches for her, even 110 years later. She deserves redemption.
“Shame festers in dark places… When shame goes unchallenged in its darkness, it wins. When shame – undeserved shame, I should say, and shame about suicide is most definitely undeserved – is exposed to light, it weakens. With openness, people find a community of others who have also lost a loved one to suicide, who can normalize the experience, who can offer hope and healing, and who welcome those who feel shame with its antidote – acceptance.” —Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LSCW; SpeakingOfSuicide.com
Depression is a terrible beast that no one should have to fight alone, and suicide is not something for which survivors should feel shame. After more than a century, it’s time to celebrate Mary’s life and accomplishments. It’s time to break the stigma. And if you’re ever in Ithaca, Michigan, you can stop by and leave her some flowers.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me.
I am not a mental health professional! Here are some of the resources I used in the crafting of this article:
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911. You do not need to go through this alone.
Project Semicolon is a movement that I think it really great. It utilizes a simple semicolon to encourage, love, and inspire. It is an amazing and inspiring force for those who are struggling.
Speaking of Suicide; A site for suicidal individuals and their loved ones, survivors, mental health professionals, and the merely curious.
All About Depression: a site with some resources, information, and some great descriptions about depression.
History of Drug Use in the United States, including some interesting facts about morphine and other opiate usage in the nineteenth century.
VictorianWeb.com has some interesting information about morphine use during the turn of the century.
Substance and Shadow: Women and Addiction in the United States by Stephen R Kandall.
Awesome vintage Chicago postcards from Chuckman’s Collection. I find more amazing images of the places I research in Chicago from this site! This is like a treasure trove from Chicago’s past.
Ancestry.com is a fantastic resource for anyone embarking on genealogical research.
Newspapers.com is a vortex that will suck you in and you will find yourself spending hours and hours and hours reading and clipping old newspaper articles until your eyes are dried up little raisins in your head, and you’ll only tear yourself away from the computer for the length of time it takes to run to the bathroom and grab an energy bar. It. Is. Fascinating.
Pinterest.com is where I found a lot of these vintage drug images. Don’t get me started.
Find a Grave can be helpful in finding graves.