Little known history: Adulterers, counterfeiters, and opium eaters
If there was a Wilton Trivia Team, Bob Russell would surely be its captain.
The former first selectman and historian entertained about 30 people on June 28 at the Wilton Historical Society with a talk of some of the lesser-known history of Wilton. Before getting to some of the more noble and scandalous exploits of Wilton residents, Russell warmed up his audience with a few salacious details from the 18th Century.
The first crime in Wilton occurred before there even was a town, when Wilton was still a parish in 1717. That’s when Mehitable Powell of Norwalk charged Ebenezer Jackson with fathering her child. Jackson, who was married, was found guilty and ordered to pay child support.
That wasn’t the end of Jackson’s troubles. At the same court session, he and his wife Esther were charged with “fornication” before marriage and both were ordered to pay fines. Court records do not show who filed the charge but Russell speculated it may have been “a vindictive Mehitable.”
None of this, by the way, prevented Jackson, who eventually settled in Sharon, Conn., from becoming a deacon in the church there.
Details leading to the first messy divorce here made the Danbury paper in 1799. “Notice: Whereas my wife Sarah Esther has absconded from my bed and board and neglected her duties to me and my family, therefore I forbid all persons from harboring or trusting her and I will pay no debt of hers. Signed, Aaron Olmstead.”
“Despite the disruption, they had a son Ollie Olmstead, who graduated from Yale and became a distinguished educator,” Russell added. He founded the Wilton Academy in the early 19th Century, which offered a means of education to prepare students for college after eighth grade.
In the early 1800s drinking was common, Russell noted, particularly of rum. In 1810 there were five distilleries in town that produced 1,680 gallons of whiskey and rum a year — a considerable supply for a population of 1,700.
Rum also figured into one of the earliest instances of town welfare. Russell read from a document written May 7, 1808, by Selectman David Lambert to Capt. David Betts, who had a store: “Sir, Please to let Francis Newell have a half-pint of rum. You will see that he has it at proper times as he needs it and not all at once and charge the town.”
What may be the first recorded opposition to Super 7 — at that time known as the proposed Danbury-Norwalk Turnpike, came in 1831 when the town spent $57.87 — 10% of its budget — opposing the petition for the road.
After dispensing with these “tidbits,” Russell moved on to the story of Dr. J. Edward Turner, “a pioneer in the treatment of alcoholism” in the mid-1800s. “He was 20 to 30 years ahead of his time,” Russell said.
Inebriates and counterfeiters
In his younger years, Turner cared for an alcoholic uncle and he decided there was a better way to care for them than had been the practice of the time. After medical school, he went to Binghamton, N.Y., where a hospital for men had been opened in 1862 to treat them for alcoholism. A clash with the board of directors over treatment methods forced him out in 1867. As a side note, Russell said, three years later the hospital failed and was turned into an insane asylum.
Married to a daughter of the wealthy Middlebrook family, Turner came back to Wilton. He bought a house on Ridgefield Road that in recent years has been known as the Schlichting house and decided to establish a hotel for women alcoholics he termed “female inebriates and opium eaters.”
An architect’s drawing published in a newspaper in 1881 showed a grand building that was 367 feet long and four stories high. It was to be built at the top of the hill where Catalpa and Middlebrook Farm roads meet. Unfortunately, while Turner was traveling the state raising funds, his enemies from Binghamton convinced the Connecticut legislature to revoke his license.
“He returned home a broken and unhappy man,” Russell said. Turner died in 1889 at the age of 67 and is buried at Hillside Cemetery. He received belated recognition when, in 1909, the American Medical Society for the Study of Alcohol and Other Narcotics dedicated a plaque at his grave that recognizes him as “The first physician to put into practical operation the treatment of inebriety as a disease. By the methods he instituted thousands have been redeemed, humanity blessed, the principles of Christianity advanced.”
At the other spectrum of humanity was Wilton ne’er-do-well William Stuart, ironically a distant cousin of biblical scholar Moses Stuart who lived on Drum Hill Road.
The son of a Revolutionary War veteran and opium-addicted mother, William Stuart was a classic bad boy. He tarred and feathered a teacher’s cow and put a cat into a butter churn. “This kid was bad,” Russell said. By the time he was 12 to 14 years old he was hanging out in Norwalk around “houses of ill repute.” His nasty behavior escalated as he threw a girl into a featherbed and then threw her into a fire, which burned off her hair but did not kill her.
One day, he and his buddies ran into a stranger who had counterfeit bills. They bought $100 for $10. Counterfeiting was fairly common since there was no standard currency in the early 1800s. Banks printed their own bills, Russell said.
Stuart passed the money around and then upped his game to $1,000. He found a supplier in Canada where he rode his horse and brought counterfeit bills back. He did this several times a year and traveled as far as South Carolina changing bad bills for good.
Finally, in 1817 when he was 27 years old, he was arrested in Ridgefield, tried in Danbury and sentenced to five years in the underground prison in Granby. After his release in 1825 he moved with his wife to Bridgewater. Far from being reformed, he wrote a book about his exploits, Sketches of the Life of William Stuart, the First and Most Celebrated Counterfeiter of Connecticut. It promised “daring feats performed by himself — perils by sea and land — frequent arrests and imprisonment — blowing out of jail with powder,” and more.
The book is available at Wilton Library.
One of Russell’s final stories was of a murder. In 1898, after the death of her husband, a woman named Susan Anderson moved back from New York City to her father’s home in an unsettled area on the Wilton-New Canaan border.
Reading from an account by neighbor George Thompson, Russell said, “Soon after she arrived she began to make enemies in New Canaan. She wanted to shop in New Canaan but there was no passable road to get into downtown. So she sued them; she insisted they build a road to get her to downtown New Canaan. They were very unhappy about it but they had to build a new road after spending a lot of legal fees to fight it.
“Hence no one was especially sorry when the body of Mrs. Anderson was found buried in her pigsty,” Russell read. “Her hired man had been found hanging from a tree with a note in his pocket stating ‘one year with Susan Anderson and I have not received anything to eat nor any pay. She is 17 days dead. Seek and you will find.’”