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As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.

Tracing down the lines of the old New England ancestors I didn’t know I had, I’ve come across some very interesting stories. This one is one of my personal favorites.

My great-great-grandfather, Joseph, was born and raised in the small town of Ripton, Vermont, just east of Middlebury. Both sets of Joseph’s grandparents had been born in New Hampshire but later settled in the Eastern Townships area just over the border in Québec in the early 1800s, where Joseph’s parents married in 1834. Thus Joseph’s father was born in Québec and his mother, born in New Hampshire, had moved there as a very small child.

Soon after their marriage, Joseph’s parents moved back to the United States, settling in Ripton. His mother’s parents soon joined them. Joseph’s father died before he was born, and he spent his childhood with his mother, older brother and sister, and maternal grandparents. Joseph’s mother, Fanny, had four younger siblings, all born in Québec. Last summer I tried to trace them, with some success, and following the branches down led to this fascinating story about a very smart man with many interesting ideas. Follow me below the orange Challah bread to hear more.

The first of Joseph’s mother’s siblings I located was his Uncle Charles, Fanny’s oldest brother. Charles settled with his Québec-born wife Sophronia in Ripton as well, and they had five children. In November 1852, just over 150 years ago, Charles was killed in an unfortunate hunting accident (because, you know, nobody ever gets hurt by guns accidentally). Sophronia was left to raise the children, who ranged in age from nine months (their daughter Charla, whom we shall meet again shortly) to eight years.

Charles's hunting accident is reported in the paper
In the 1860 census Sophronia is shown as a live-in servant for a wealthy couple in Middlebury, the shire town to the west and home of Middlebury College. Her children were living back in Ripton with her mother and, on the farm next door, her dead husband’s father. Sophronia remarried and had several more children, and her youngest two daughters, Sophia and Charla, who were seventeen and thirteen, moved to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in the textile mills. In 1868 19-year-old Sophia caught the eye of one James B. Emerson, an engineer of 45, and soon became his third wife.
James B. Emerson: the man, the engineer, the iconoclast
James B. Emerson was quite a character and lived an odd life. He was born January 2, 1823 in New Hampshire. His ancestors, as he told it, had been Congregationalist ministers in New Hampshire for several generations, but he himself was restless. He left his farm town for a merchant ship and spent ten years as a sailor out of whaling capital New Bedford, Massachusetts. In between journeys he married his first wife Sarah, who it seems was the love of his life, and with whom he is buried. They had a daughter, Ella, in 1849.

Finding seagoing life incompatible with family life, James moved his wife and daughter to Worcester, Massachusetts, where a second daughter, Hattie, was born in 1857. Keenly intelligent but lacking in formal education, James happened by chance on his life’s work in Worcester. The city is located on the Blackstone, an early industrial river due to its unusually strong current, and the mechanically inclined James became a passionate student of the dams and a self-taught expert on water turbines.

Measuring water power was James B. Emerson's ultimate vocation. Here are the Holyoke (South Hadley) Falls, where he did his work for the last 25 years of his life.
James and his family moved next to East Boston, where he endeavored to market his patented invention, a new kind of ship’s windlass he had designed while at sea. In East Boston the Emersons lived just down the street from President Kennedy’s grandfather, Patrick J. Kennedy, who was James’s daughter Hattie’s age. Sadly, little Hattie (called "Prattling Hattie") died of scarlet fever in September 1860. She was only three. Her parents buried her in their hometown of Newport, New Hampshire. Movingly, because she was afraid of the dark they buried her with isinglass over her grave (since covered with cement).

Two years later, in 1862 (just after another daughter, Minnie, was born), James’s wife Sarah also died, of tuberculosis. One year later the new baby Minnie died as well, and was buried in New Hampshire near her mother and sister. Disease was rampant in East Boston at the time, cholera having claimed Patrick J. Kennedy’s immigrant father among its many victims in those years.

After the deaths of his daughters and wife, James left East Boston, taking a job as an engineer in Lowell. Lowell was the nation’s largest textile center at the time, very much dependent on water power, and James developed a testing flume to measure the efficiency of various water wheels then being marketed. His major contribution was adding a “Prony break” (I don’t know either) to the existing testing flume, which apparently was a stroke of genius.

In November 1863, not long after arriving in Lowell, James married a woman who came from a prominent family in Belfast, Maine. Like his first wife, her name was Sarah and she was thirty-six years old at the time. (Her grandfather, the last surviving Revolutionary War veteran in Maine, lived to be over 100 and was still living when Sarah married James B. Emerson).

The marriage appears to have been a bad match, for within three years this second Sarah had fled back to her native Belfast, Maine. It is possible she and James’s surviving daughter, fourteen at the time of the marriage, did not get along. Sarah soon married a widower from a prominent local family whose first wife had been a cousin of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and remained a resident of Belfast until her death in 1911. Whether she ever formally divorced James B. Emerson or they lived as bigamists, I can’t say.

Lowell in those days was populated by thousands of “mill girls,” single young women who worked for low wages, many of them from New England farm families like Sophia and Charla. Perhaps determined not to have another wife like his second Sarah, James turned instead to the poor young mill girl Sophia. She was twenty-five years younger than he, in fact not even half his age and only a few months older than his daughter Ella. Nonetheless, they married in 1868.

James’s reputation as an engineer had grown considerably during his years in Lowell. After conducting his first Lowell tests, which were a breakthrough in water power science, James purchased and ran the flume himself as a profitable enterprise. In 1870 he was offered the chance to move his highly successful testing flume to the Connecticut River at Holyoke, near Springfield in western Massachusetts. Holyoke had become a manufacturing center because the Connecticut River, New England’s largest, has more water power at Holyoke’s falls than earlier industrial powerhouses Lowell and Lawrence have combined. A rare New England city with a grid layout, Holyoke was a planned industrial community from the start, and still has an incredible collection of 19th century industrial buildings.

Again, James’s testing flume proved significantly more effective than the previous design. So highly regarded was his testing that designers of water wheels from all over the country more or less had to bring their inventions to Holyoke for him to test. James was in charge of the testing flume at Holyoke until about 1880, and after that remained active in the field through writing and serving as an expert consultant and witness. He built a handsome Victorian house in Willimansett, in the neighboring city of Chicopee, where he remained the rest of his life and became something of a local celebrity. He and Sophia had three children there.

James’s first daughter, Ella, married in the early 1870s and moved away. At this point he asked his sister-in-law Charla, who had moved from Lowell to Willimansett with them, to be his assistant for his many experiments, including tests of turbines he was invited to conduct all over the nation. James, who claimed he only needed four hours of sleep a night, was a constant inventor and always working on projects. Soon, his big project was his Treatise Relative to the Testing of Water-Wheels and Machinery, also of Inventions, Studies, and Experiments, with Suggestions from a Life's Experience, the first edition of which was published in 1878. Between then and 1894, five more editions would follow.

A most interesting little book
It is a lengthy but fascinating work, even for those (like me) who have little knowledge of, or interest in, “water-wheels and machinery.” James B. Emerson was a man of many strong and unique opinions, such that his treatise is believed to be the only engineering textbook ever banned by the Roman Catholic Church!

Why? In addition to discussions of water-works and scientific tutorials on other topics (like silk, flour milling, railroads, etc.), the book is liberally sprinkled with bold and witty digressions on a wide range of subjects. They appear throughout the book with no apparent rhyme or reason, apparently because Emerson thought they would attract readers who might then learn something about water works in the process. In many ways, James was far ahead of his time:

• He was an early feminist. Charla, my great-great-grandfather’s first cousin, had been responsible for all the calculations in his experiments and recording the test results, Emerson emphasized that she had done wonderfully: “Without exception Charla was the most expeditious mathematician and best adapted for the purpose of any one I have ever known engaged in the work.” This, he said, disproved the theory that women were unsuited to math and science. Hear that, Larry Summers?
• He also argued for women’s suffrage and wrote “Free woman from her bondage of conventionalism and long petticoats, encourage her to think and talk of something besides dress, give her equal rights with man.” He also advocated liberal divorce (perhaps from experience) and more widespread nudity.

Charla, my distant cousin and a great keeper of statistics
Some of Charla's calculations
• A frequent expert witness in court, he had little good to say about the legal system. He believed it contrary to “knowledge and justice,” and had little use for lawyers adept at winning verdicts on technicalities, particularly for corporations.
• The medical profession fared no better, as he noted that there were more doctors and medicines than ever, but people were sicker. He also bitterly noted that the doctors had been unable to save his young daughter or first wife, and had behaved abominably in both cases.
Emerson's sarcastic "cross-examination" of the typical expert witness in engineering
• He had no use for the Bible as a moral guide, calling it inconsistent and full of allegory for the benefit of primitive and superstitious people.
• He likewise loathed organized religion, devoting almost half the book to a critique of conventional religion and a review of all sorts of religious traditions from all around the world and all times. Catholicism and Islam, in particular, did not come out well, but neither did the mainline Protestant denominations. He called for taxation of churches.
A common sight: irreverence from Emerson
• Christianity in general he called an “atrocious delusion” responsible for much human suffering but no improvement in human morals, in a section entitled “What Good has Christianity ever Done?.” He argued that soon “any religion irreconcilable with reason will have no place except with the ignorant or venal.” I think he’d be disappointed with the nation on this front.
• He called out the Victorian era for its moralistic hypocrisy, writing “Expurgate the atrocity and obscenity of the Bible and only spiritualism would remain. Expurgate what at this day cannot publicly be read from Shakespeare’s works, and the pith is gone. Expurgate the loathsome filthiness from Rabelais’ description of the Christianity of his time, and only the covers of his book remain.” Thus, though not a drinker himself, he strongly opposed Prohibition.
More anti-religion commentary
• He believed in a direct relationship with God and was an ardent spiritualist. A large section of the book is devoted to describing séances held with Sophia and Charla, and reprinting his correspondence with people far and wide whose dead relatives and neighbors he claimed to have communicated with via séance and telegram. He also claimed mind reading and predictive powers.
Emerson claimed to communicate with the dead at seances, and wrote their survivors to prove they once had existed
He also claimed to have been warned by a spirit that his wife's (and Charla's) brother would die
• A favorite political observation: “I voted…for Lincoln twice, and still believe [he] was the best man ever elected to the presidency. The abolition of slavery was caused by the spontaneous rising of the masses to blot out an institution of such barbarism. Nominally it was done as the Republican party, but…then the residuum crystallized into the real Republican party, a party for power and plunder…May the shadow of the Republican party become less and a better take its place.” (Don’t worry, he hated the Democrats too.)

James B. Emerson’s sarcastic wit is quite fun. While telling readers he “never inquired” if he was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he recounts a story about his great-grandfather, Deacon James Emerson. One Sunday the deacon’s wife asked him to chase a fox away from a rabbit it was hunting. Great-grandfather James “declined upon the plea that it would be breaking the Sabbath. The wife queried whether it was not laziness instead of piety that prevailed.”

Emerson also published in the next edition, without identifying her, a letter from his stepmother that criticized all the editorializing in his book. In response to a critical review in the Holyoke Democrat, which he reprinted and which is funny in its own right, Emerson replied “Probably a copy of the Holyoke Democrat was never seen a mile from its place of publication unless, perhaps, when used as a wrapper for some workingman’s overalls.”

The Holyoke Democrat tweaks Emerson.
And Emerson tweaks them right back. Below, his stepmother gives her view on his book.
The book also describes some of Emerson’s many inventions, including an improved heating system for train cars and a device for women to learn to swim. Men, he said, could learn by stripping down to their skivvies and swimming whenever they felt like it. Women, bound by hoop skirts and Victorian mores, could not. Thus they never learned to swim and often drowned when caught in a shipwreck. Emerson therefore proposed a contraption similar to a hand-powered bicycle chain. By using the device at home women could learn to “swim” because, if the skills were needed, they would retain the muscle memory.
Emerson's invention to teach women to swim
This extraordinary man died of Bright's disease on July 6, 1896 and was buried in New Hampshire with his first wife. His widow, Sophia, remained in the Willimansett house and died there more than 30 years later, in the late 1920s. His children were affected by him, it is clear. His surviving daughters both married engineers and his youngest son also patented several inventions. James and Sophia's grandson, about whom I’ll write sometime, also led a very interesting life.

Unlike Sophia Adams Emerson, Charla did not stay in Willimansett. Forty-four and unmarried when James B. Emerson died, she soon moved to Lynn on the other side of Massachusetts. There she was a dressmaker and then operated a variety store. She never married and I wonder if her relationship with James strained her relationship with her sister. In the 1920s, when she was past seventy, Charla returned to the part of Vermont where she was born. She lived her last years in a Mary Elizabeth McDowell home, and died seventy-six years ago this week, on February 3, 1937, two weeks before her 85th birthday.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 08:52 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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