A 19th century lithographic view of Biddeford, seen from from Saco, hangs on the wall at the Osher Map Library gallery in Portland on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. The image illustrates the then growing divide between traditional New England farm life and the region's growing, industrial cities. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It was a warm day in April 1850. Saco’s Woodbury Brook was likely a torrent of spring meltwater as Osgood Stevens, 14, tried to unclog a culvert where the stream passed under Storer Street.

Standing in the icy water, Osgood found the culprit. A whitewashed, wooden plank was blocking the flow. Then the teenager made a much more gruesome discovery.

A woman’s dead body was attached to the other side of the six-foot board.

Her hands were bound with cotton rags, and she was tied to the plank at her neck and ankles. Dressed only in blue stockings, a light shift and nightcap, rats had gnawed away most of her face. It was clear to the gathering crowd that she’d been in the culvert for quite some time.

Thus began the sensational public tale of Mary Bean, a woman whose story would eventually include a botched abortion and the murder trial of the doctor who performed the procedure. The story became a national sensation and cautionary morality warning against young women leaving their rural homes and virtues behind while seeking opportunities — and their own wages — in New England’s burgeoning factory towns.

“This is a story about women in the workforce, and the price of progress and who should even be in the workforce,” said University of New England professor Elizabeth De Wolfe, who wrote an award-winning book titled “The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories” in 2007. “And it’s about women leaving home, out of the watchful eyes of men and it’s about policing women’s behavior.”

De Wolfe will discuss her book, in person on Feb. 17 and online Feb. 21, as part of the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library exhibition “Industry, Wealth, and Labor: Mapping New England’s Textile Industry.”

The exhibition is inspired by the library’s recent acquisition of textile mill insurance plans and historic maps from the defunct American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Mary Bean’s real name, obscured for privacy’s sake at the time, was Berengera Caswell. Born in Quebec, Caswell had come to work in New England’s mills a few years before her death. She was one of thousands of young women escaping farm-life drudgery, eager for cash wages of their own.

This rural-to-city labor migration came just as the women’s suffrage movement was gathering steam. It also coincided with several new state laws granting women freestanding rights to property and decision making untethered either to their husbands or fathers.

These changes, coupled with wage-earning women forgoing early marriage, made many in the establishment deeply uneasy. A cultural backlash was inevitable.

Caswell’s sad end was thus a convenient vehicle for salacious newspaper stories and moral-panic pamphleteers whose underlying message to women leaving home was always the same.

“You’re going to wind up dead or a prostitute,” De Wolfe said.

While working in a Manchester, New Hampshire mill, Caswell met William Long. The two became lovers but Long lost his position and moved back to his hometown of Biddeford. Some time later, Caswell discovered she was pregnant and followed Long, taking up residence in a boarding house in late 1849.

College professors Libby Bischof (left) and Elizabeth De Wolfe stand in the Osher Map Library exhibit “Industry, Wealth and Labor: Mapping New England’s Textile Industry” in Portland on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Pregnancy among New England’s “mill girls” as they were called, was a common problem. If discovered, the women were inevitably fired. Long asked his supervisor at the Saco Water Power Co. on Factory Island for advice. His boss said he knew a Saco doctor who could abort the pregnancy and even loaned Long money for the procedure.

Caswell then moved into Dr. James Harvey Smith’s house in Saco. Smith practiced herbal medicine and held no medical degree. He repeatedly dosed Caswell with a juniper concoction meant to bring about a miscarriage but the botanical method failed to do the job.

On Dec. 15, Smith took a more dangerous and drastic approach.

“Using a wire instrument, eight inches in length, with a hook on the end, Smith performed an abortion,” De Wolfe wrote in her book. “With his wire tool, and without anesthesia, Smith attempted to puncture the amniotic sack and scrape loose the pregnancy.”

However, in the process, Smith perforated Caswell’s uterus, leaving a four-inch gash, and mangled adjacent organs as well. Infection set in immediately and Caswell died a week later, likely in agony.

Smith then lashed Caswell to a board from a stall in his barn and set her adrift in Woodbury Brook. He thought the stream would take Caswell’s remains to the Saco River and then out to sea but she never cleared the nearby culvert. Caswell’s body had remained there for more than three months by the time Stevens found her in April.

Authorities eventually identified the remains and arrested Smith. Abortion and birth control were both legal in Maine, but he was charged with second-degree murder in Caswell’s death.

A 19th-century map of Saco hanging in Portland’s Osher Map Library on Tuesday shows the exact spot where Mary Bean’s murdered body was found lodged in a culvert as a brook flowed under a street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Mary Bean; The factory girl; Victim of seduction,” screamed a headline in the Maine Democrat newspaper as Caswell’s story began to make the rounds, getting more and more dramatic with each retelling. Some printed accounts also included sexualized, buxom drawings supposedly depicting Caswell wearing prostitute-like gowns.

Moralizing, reality-blurring and outright fictionalized “ripped-from-the-headlines” accounts were also published as free-standing pamphlets and magazines. Caswell, Long and Smith’s names were all changed, but the public knew who the story was about.

In each case, Caswell — and Long — were simple, country folk lured into temptation and moral ruination by bad company, which came exclusively from the nation’s mill cities.

A full-length book titled “A Thrilling and Exciting Account of the Horrible Murder of Mary Bean, the Factory Girl,” was published in 1852.

Smith was represented at trial by Nathan Clifford, a former diplomat, U.S. attorney general and future U.S. Supreme Court justice. However, even with Clifford repeatedly impugning Caswell’s moral character echoing the popular press, it took the jury just two hours to find Smith guilty. The doctor was then sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, Clifford succeeded in getting Smith’s conviction lowered to manslaughter. Smith served two years and then died of tuberculosis three years after getting out of prison.

More than 170 years later, Caswell’s story still draws attention.

“We have so many people signed up for the talk,” said Libby Bischof, executive director of the Osher Map Library. “A lot of people love true crime but there’s also a lot of nostalgia for Maine industries. It’s where people made their livelihoods and it’s being lost — and changing again.”

De Wolfe sees Caswell as a bridge between two American eras.

“She lived in this industrial moment when women were taking steps forward and society was trying to push them back,” she said. “Recovering her story is important for us to understand the long road to women’s rights and to women’s industry.”

This past summer, De Wolfe got a chance to visit Caswell’s grave in Quebec. While there, she offered a token of thanks, feeling that she owed Caswell something for the young woman’s story and the opportunities it’s brought.

“In one of the newspapers, there was a little, tiny story that I happened on, quite by accident,” De Wolfe said. “In it, her sister Thais was recalling that Berengera had a bean-shaped purse in which she kept shiny five-cent pieces that she saved as a fancy.”

Before leaving Caswell’s final resting place, De Wolfe left Caswell a shiny, new nickel.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.