Author: Brian Schools
From the Tewksbury Almshouse at age 19, Ida Hackett reflected back on a very troubled childhood mostly spent in institutions away from her family. From this case file and other historical documents, we get a glimpse of some of the many challenges she faced early in life.
Born in Ohio in 1854 to Mary Anne and Chandler Hackett, Ida never got to know her father, as he died while she was an infant. In 1860 her mother was married to her second husband, a jeweler named Charles Lemer. At this time Ida lived with her mother and stepfather Charles, who was fifteen years older than Mary, in Norwalk, Huron County, Ohio.
Ida would recall briefly living in Rochester, New York at age seven before the family moved to Boston. Tragedy soon struck again, as her stepfather Charles had gone off to the Civil War and had never been heard from since. With Charles presumed dead, Ida and her mother were again on their own and had likely fallen from middle class. Perhaps this latest hardship was what compelled her mother to commit Ida to the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls the following year, when she was only eight years old.
Ida was admitted to the school on August 18, 1862. Her intake records confirm that her mother was twice a widow, and tell us that Ida had one half-sister whom we know little about. Ida kept a relatively low profile in her first year at the school, but began to appear in monthly reports on August 5 of 1863. Ida had been accused of stealing, being disagreeable, and “deficient in sensibility, coarse, and low in her inclinations”. Her behavior led the managers to consider returning Ida to her mother, or possibly moving her from the vocational training of the industrial school to a character reform school focused on religion, education, and domestic training. Later that year Ida’s mother, Mary Anne, requested that she bring Ida back into her home; the managers doubted Mary Anne’s ability to support her daughter, so they refused her request.
After 1863, Ida once again falls silent in the monthly reports; she is next mentioned a year and a half later in May of 1865. Manager Eliza Guild reported that cases of “bad heads”, a term used in the 19th century to indicate lack of reason or morals, should be treated by a hospital physician outside of the school, and that Ida’s case was the worst. The monthly reports that follow do not state whether or not she had been treated, or what kind of treatment she received. Later that year, the managers revisited the idea of returning Ida to her mother, but once again they determined Mary Anne unfit to take her daughter back into her home.
Two years later in December 1867, Eliza Macy, a newly appointed teacher at the school, voiced her strong desire that Ida be moved elsewhere. Macy repeated these sentiments again in March of 1868, leading to an arrangement to transfer Ida to the State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster. While the Dorchester school had tried to provide Ida with work skills so she could eventually support herself, Lancaster would now attempt to reform Ida’s character through a more punitive form of religion, common schooling, and domestic training.
On March 8th, one of the managers went with Ida to Lancaster and placed her at the school, observing that “Ida showed no feeling at all about the change”. Ida did not remain at Lancaster for long, however, as she was reunited with her mother the following year in 1869.
In 1871 Ida was living with her mother in Beverly, Massachusetts at the home of Ida’s grandfather Samuel Chase. When Ida became pregnant at the age of seventeen by Albert Preston, her mother banished her from the home. Shortly afterwards, Ida was arrested for vagrancy and spent six months at the Ipswich House of Corrections, a large jail and insane asylum, where her child was born in August 1871. Sadly, Ida’s baby passed away at two months old shortly after her release, while Ida was working in Boston on Worchester Street as a wet nurse. In the mid 19th century it was common to hire a young woman who had just given birth to breastfeed the young of the wealthy.
Shortly after the death of her baby, Ida resided at the “House of Ill Fame” at 49 Melrose Street, operated by Fan Howard. She had been “criminally intimate”, in the words of her case worker at Tewksbury, with Rufus McNeil, from whom she believed she acquired syphilis. In June of 1873, 19-year-old Ida was treated at Tewksbury Almshouse for the syphilis.
Her records indicate that she had been transferred there from the “State Workhouse” because of her condition. This may refer to the State Workhouse at Bridgewater, where paupers convicted of lesser crimes and juveniles that could not be reformed were incarcerated, while being forced to work without pay. Ida was discharged from Tewksbury on July 29, 1873, then seemingly disappears from public records. She may have returned to a state institution and eventually passed away from her illness, or perhaps changed her name once out of the system to avoid detection.
Much of what we know about Ida is not a pleasant story, as her life seemed to be filled with heartache and troubled times as a child and into early adulthood. I do hope that there were moments of happiness in her life that we were unable to uncover in our research.