What Julia Ward Howe and a Murder Victim have in Common

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Julia at her first Lawton Valley home.

Portsmouth women were at the forefront of the Woman’s Rights Movement.  We focus our attention on the effort to gain the right to vote, but there were many more rights that needed to be gained for women along the way.  As I worked on research for a play and read a biography of Julia Ward Howe for a book club the sad situation for married women kept emerging.

We recently presented a play (Murder at the Coal Mines) that was based on a true case of domestic crime. I wrote the court room drama from the detailed newspaper accounts of the testimony given in the murder trial of miner Robert Casey in October of 1875. Casey had acted in jealousy.  He had spent eight months away from his family and returned to accuse his wife of infidelity.  He tried to poison both her and himself and then provided an antidote so they would live.  At gunpoint, Casey made his wife “confess” her adultery to his children and then he took away the two older children to New Jersey to live with his family.  His fury was not spent.  Using his pistol again, Casey made his wife and the man he accused of adultery travel to Fall River and get married by a justice of the peace.  One newspaper account said he even “gave away the bride”.  Fearing for his life, the “other man” ran away, but Lizzie was left in the home with Casey.  When the sheriff came to arrest Casey for assaulting another miner, Casey shot himself and his wife.  Lizzie, his wife, died.  Casey recovered from his wound and stood trial for the murder.

As we read through the play, there was something missing – the point of view of Lizzie Casey, the victim. We decided to add a prologue to the play where Lizzie would present her side of the situation that led to her husband killing her and attempting to kill himself.  I began to research the status of married women in Rhode Island during that time period.   Going through the facts of the case, I had many questions.  Why would Lizzie stay in a marriage after her husband had tried to poison her?  How could Robert Casey just take her older children away to New Jersey?  Why couldn’t Lizzie run away from the abuse and maybe support her children with a job somewhere else?

I’m not sure just when the laws began to change, but throughout most of the 19th century laws concerning married women in Rhode Island were rooted in British Common Law.  According to the bible, when a man and woman marry they are considered as one person.  At marriage the woman lost her identity.  As far as the law was concerned, the rights of that “one person” were centered on the husband.  When a woman married, she lost the right to own her own property, enter into contracts or even decide about the care of her own children.  Robert Casey, as the husband, had all the rights.  Any property she owned went to her husband, even the clothes on her back.   Even if Lizzie had left and tried to find a job, any income she earned would be given to her husband.

As I read Elaine Showalter’s biography “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” I realized that even the famous Julia Ward Howe had much in common with Lizzie.  Julia wrote: “Even women of fortune possessed nothing individually after their marriage. The ring which promised to endow them with all the bridegroom’s earthly goods, really endowed him all that belonged to them, even to the clothes that they wore. Their children were not their own. The father could dispose of them as he might think fit.”

Julia Ward Howe did not come into her own until after her husband’s death.  Samuel Gridley Howe (Julia called him Chev) believed that a wife and mother should find all fulfillment in family.  Although Julia had a passion for writing, her husband refused to let her publish.  She learned stealth and published her poetry book anonymously.  Even the poem for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was only published because Julia’s minister had asked her to write it.  Julia became famous for her poem, but Chev insisted that she not make any public appearances.

Howe used his right to the children to threaten Julia into  re-establishing  a sexual relationship.  He took full advantage of his rights to her money when he bought the Lawton Valley property with her money but only put his name of the deed. Later he sold their first Lawton Valley home without consulting her.   He frequently uprooted his family and moved at will even though Julia would beg to stay in her home.

The day after Chev died in January of 1876, Julia wrote:  “Began my new life today.”  To add insult to injury, Chev left nothing to Julia in his will.  She had to move on and she moved to Oak Glen in Portsmouth with her daughter Maud.  Her lectures and writing became the way she supported herself.

Information on Julia from Elaine Showalter’s “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.”  Simon and Schuster, New York, 2016.


Cast of Characters: Dr. Benjamin Greene (1833 -1908)

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Dr. Benjamin Greene

Dr. Greene may be familiar to you if you have visited the Portsmouth Historical Society. There is a neat display with his photo, some of his medical books and some items he would have used in his long practice in Portsmouth. Through the tragedy of the “Murder in the Coal Mines,” Dr. Greene would play a role in treating the infamous convicted murderer. He testified at the trial and he continued to treat his patient at the prison even after the trial.

Greene was born in Exeter, Rhode Island.  In 1856 he began to study medicine under the instruction of his uncle, Dr. Job Kenyon.  He enrolled in the University Medical School in New York in 1857.  When he graduated from medical school he went directly to Portsmouth to establish his practice.  In 1860 he married Eunice Chase who descended from old Portsmouth families.

He became a member of the Rhode Island Medical Society and had a successful practice in town.  He dabbled in real estate transaction in Fall River as well and was successful at that.  He was active in the Methodist Church and in the Masonic order. Newspaper accounts show he was a delegate to the Republican State Convention in 1884 and he was active in the temperance movement along with his wife Eunice.    Bayles’ History of Newport County comments that “he enjoys the respect and confidence of the community in which he lives, and of his professional brethren.”

Cast of Characters: Thomas Holman (1818-1904)

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Thomas Holman’s life was a Portsmouth rags to riches story.  He was the immigrant miner who worked his way up to becoming Superintendent of the coal mines.  His role in the “Murder at the Coal Mines,” however, is shrouded in mystery.

Holman was born in Gwinear in Cornwall, England.  Thomas’ parents were poor and they died when he was very young.  He had little opportunity for education and found himself working in the copper and lead mines by the time he was eleven years old.  He continued to work in the mines in Cornwall until 1840 when he decided that there was little chance for advancement in England.  Twenty-two year old Thomas headed directly to Portsmouth where he could get better pay for his mining skills. There are records of Cornwall families migrating to Portsmouth and to Pennsylvania were other Holman family members resided.   He became well known for his skill at mining and he worked himself up to the position of Superintendent of the Portsmouth Coal Mines.

Thomas Holman may have worked at the coal mines until 1877, but he was preparing himself for the farming life.  He started by buying farmland nearby the Coal Mine village which later became the Benjamin Hall farm..  Over time he bought the “Hill Township Farm” which is known as Seameadow Farm today.  His farm covered over 100 acres and he was successful at general farming and stock raising as well.  Thomas married into two prominent Portsmouth families. He was married to Mary Sherman and after she died, he married Hannah (Anna) Barker Albro.

The article on Thomas Holman in Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island relates that “He was a man who made a success of life, which he accomplished by hard work, and strict attention to his business.  He never received much education in the schools of his native country, but he was a self-educated man.  He was much devoted to his wife and family and was a good citizen in every respect.”  (pg 2277)

Most prominent Portsmouth citizens held some town office, but outside of serving on the School Committee, he declined all other offices.  Maybe he valued education more than most because of his lack of opportunity to gain an education in England.  He was active in the community as a staunch Republican and vestryman at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

In 1875 Holman testified at the trial that formed the basis of “Murder at the Coal Mines.”  We know through genealogy records that Thomas Holman was actually the uncle of the victim, but there was no mention of the family relationship in the newspapers or in the court records.



Cast of Characters: Deputy Asa Anthony

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Asa Anthony (1828-1904)

Sheriff’s Deputy Asa Anthony was a central character in the 1875 “Murder at the Coal Mines” case. Asa Burrington Anthony was born on Willowbrook Farm on West Main Road. It was originally the home of his father David Anthony and then it became Asa’s home as well. Willowbrook was a short walk from the Coal Mine area of Portsmouth.

Willowbrook – Asa’s Home

Like most people in Portsmouth, Asa was a farmer. He had some skills for other necessary occupations as well. Asa served in a number of roles in Portsmouth life. In 1871, Asa served as Justice of the Peace and in 1875 he was serving as the Deputy Sheriff. He knew enough about animals to be a good veterinarian and he served as the Town Coroner for Portsmouth for many years. To aid his duties as coroner, Asa bought a used hearse. He often had to transport the deceased to his home until family members could make funeral arrangements.

An 1882 newspaper article gives us an example of what he had to do on the job as Town Coroner. The Church Brothers had a fishing steamer called the Jemima Boomer. They were unloading fish at the oil works at 5 in the morning. The fish were being hoisted by a derrick when the gaff on the derrick broke and a tub of fish fell on three men who were in the hold. One man was killed and two were seriously injured. Asa had to summon a six-man coroner’s jury who immediately came to the scene of the accident. After hearing the evidence they returned a verdict of accidental death. The doctor was summoned to treat the injured men but it was Asa’s task to transport the poor soul that died that day. It is ironic that his home, Willowbrook, serves as a funeral home today.

Asa’s hearse can be seen today in the Old Town Hall at the Portsmouth Historical Society. Newspaper accounts tell us that Asa’s family gave the hearse to the historical society in the 1940s. It was stored for many years, but the Historical Society is trying to preserve it and display it.