Benjamin G. Willey (1795-1867)
Portrait from Bent's Bibliography of the White Mountains (1911) Situation of Gilead — Soil — Wild River — Early Settlers — Ministers — First Church — Slide — Bears — Encounter of One Bean — York's Warm Reception by a Bear — Oliver Peabody's Loose Ox — Famine Among Bears — Bear and Hog Story — Horrible Tragedy. Gilead, formerly called Peabody's Patent, took its name from a great Balm of Gilead tree, still standing near the centre of the town. It lies on both sides of the Androscoggin River, which runs through its entire length from east to west, the town being six miles long, and three wide. On the borders of this river is some of the best land in the region, producing very bountiful crops. One farm, some years since, under the cultivation of a very skillful, industrious farmer, when a premium was offered by the State of Maine for the best crop of wheat on a given portion of land, secured the premium. Large crops of corn and potatoes have been raised on it. Some of the former have equaled one hundred bushels to the acre. The more usual crop is from forty to sixty bushels. Potatoes have gone up as high as one thousand six hundred bushels to the acre; and one man, for a number of years in succession, raised one thousand five hundred bushels to the acre.
The town is so situated as to escape almost entirely the early frosts of autumn. Ranges of high mountains bound the valley in which it is situated, completely shutting it in on the east and west. A continual current of air is thus formed, preserving the crops in the valley and on the hillsides, while the frost is busily at work in the adjoining towns. Shaggy and rude in the extreme are the mountains which so completely wall in this fertile valley. One has remarked that "the expense of transportation of fuel down the mountains, in a slippery time, is very trifling."
|Androscoggin River from the Bridge at Gilead, June, 1973. U.S. EPA. National Archives #NWDNS-412-DA-8215|
This town was settled about the time Shelburne was, whose brief history we have just given [in a previous chapter]. The settlers came generally from Massachusetts and the southern part of New Hampshire. They were Thomas Peabody, Capt. Joseph Lary, Isaac Adams, Eliphalet Chapman, Capt. Eliphalet Burbank, George Burbank, Ephraim and Seth Wight, John Mason, Stephen Coffin, and Samuel Wheeler. After this, soon came Phineas Kimball, Henry Philbrook, Peter Coffin, and Joseph Lary, Jr. These were all exemplary good men, giving a character of energy to the place. They regarded religious institutions, and helped sustain them by their property and example. They were a church-going people, always attending the worship of God on the Sabbath. From Find A Grave Peter Coffin
From the earliest time of its settlement it has enjoyed more or less steadily the preaching of the gospel. Before any Christian church was planted in it, it had a succession of missionaries, sent from different sources, who were instrumental of great religious benefit to the people. Among these were the Rev. Jotham Sewall, or, as he is often called, "Father Sewall," and the Rev. Samuel Hidden, of Tamworth. In 1818, a Congregational church was formed, consisting of Melvin Farwell and wife, Abraham Burbank and wife, Widow Susannah Burbank, Betsey Philbrook, John Mason, Jr., H. Ingalls, Rhoda Styles, Mary Peabody, and Ephraim and Seth Wight. This church, sometimes through its own efforts, and sometimes in connection with Shelburne, has had preaching most of the time since its formation. Its regularly settled pastors have been Rev. Henry White, and Rev. Henry Richardson. Besides those, Rev. Daniel Goodhue and others have been supplies for different portions of time. There is a Methodist church, also, which has been instrumental of great religious and moral benefit to the place. During the terrible storm of 1826, when my brother's [Samuel Willey] family was destroyed at the [Crawford] Notch, slides also took place on many of the mountains in this town. From Picked Hill came rushing down thousands of tons of earth, and rocks, and trees, and water, destroying all that lay in their path. No lives were lost, but the consternation of the inhabitants was great. The darkness was so intense as almost to be felt. The vivid lightnings and long streams of fire, covering the sides of the mountains, caused by the concussion of the rocks, only served to make the darkness more visible. Amid the deluge of rain, the terrific crashings of the thunder, and, over all, the deafening roar of the descending slides, it was impossible to make one's self heard. The valley rocked as though an earthquake was shaking the earth. The frightful scene did not last long; but, during its continuance, more terror was crowded into it than during an ordinary lifetime. The inhabitants under these mountains alone can appreciate the awful scene through which my brother and his family passed on that terrible night. This region has been very much infested with bears, especially during the summer months. Many live now on the mountains, preventing entirely the raising of sheep. Though much of the land, especially on the mountains, is well adapted to grazing, still it is never safe to trust sheep and young stock far from the settlements. So late as the summer of 1852, a most desperate encounter took place between one of the farmers in this vicinity and a large black bear of the white-face breed—the most savage of that variety. A Mr. Bean was at work in his field, accompanied by a boy twelve years of age. The bear approached him, and having his gun with him, charged for partridges, he fired, but with little effect. The bear bore down upon him; he walked backwards, loading his gun at the same time, when his foot caught by a twig, which tripped him up, and the bear leaped upon him. He immediately fired again, but with no visible effect. The bear at once went to work,—seizing his left arm, biting through it, and lacerating it severely. While thus amusing himself, he was tearing with his fore paws the clothes, and scratching the flesh on the young man's breast. Having dropped his arm, he opened his huge mouth to make a pounce at his face. Then it was that the young man made the dash that saved his life. As the bear opened his jaws, Bean thrust his lacerated arm down the brute's throat, as far as desperation would enable him. There he had him! The bear could neither retreat nor advance, though the position of the besieged was anything but agreeable. Bean now called upon the lad to come and take from his pocket a jack-knife and open it. The boy marched up to the work boldly. Having got the knife, Bean with his untrammeled hand cut the bear's throat from ear to ear, killing him stone dead, while he lay on his body! It was judged the bear weighed nearly four hundred pounds. One of his paws weighed two pounds eleven ounces.
The earlier annals of this town are full of adventure, nearly equaling this in daring and bravery. The older inhabitants can recall many a scene of thrilling interest which took place within sight of their very cabins.
A man by the name of York, living in the woods, one day came rather suddenly upon a full-grown bear. They both stopped and looked each other steadily in the face. Neither seemed disposed to retreat. The bear bade defiance in her look, and York did the same. An encounter seemed unavoidable, partly because he dare not retreat now if he might, and partly because he had the pluck not to do it if he could. So they both addressed themselves to the battle. The bear raised herself on her hind feet, standing upright, and spread her fore legs to receive her antagonist. York responded by opening his arms, and a close grip succeeded. Then followed a struggle for dear life, the issue of which no one could have decided but for one circumstance. York had the advantage in it from having an open, long-bladed jack-knife in his right hand when he commenced. This, of course, he used in the best way he could, not stopping to ask whether it was fair or not. Making a little extra exertion on the first good opportunity, he drew the blade across the bear's throat, and she relaxed her hold and soon bled to death. The victory was his.
One dark night Mr. Oliver Peabody, living in a log hut, was disturbed by his cattle in the hovel near by. Supposing that one of them had broken from his fastening, and was goring the rest, he rose from his bed, and, with nothing on but his night-dress, ran towards the hovel to search out the cause of the trouble. As he came to the entrance, which was merely a hole in its side, he espied some black creature standing just inside, and, thinking it one of his cattle, stepped forward a little, and struck it on the rump with a stick he had in his hand, crying, "Hurrup! hurrup there!" The creature, deeming this rather a rough salutation, turned round, and, with the full force of his huge paw, gave him a heavy slap on the side. By this time he began to imagine that he was in no very delicate, refined company, and must look out for himself. The salutation he received from the creature was a little more unceremonious and rude than the one he first gave him. He was fully aware, now, that sometimes a person must take blows as well as give them, and hard ones, too. Certain it was, he had no disposition to repeat his stroke, or his cry of "Hurrup! hurrup!" and, perceiving that the bear was about to repeat the blow, he sounded a retreat, and made haste back to his hut. Whether the bear kept his ground, and proceeded to annoy the cattle further, we were not informed.
In the autumn of 1804, it required all the vigilance and courage of the inhabitants to preserve their cattle and hogs from the ferocious creatures. The nuts and berries, their usual food, had failed them, and, driven on by hunger, the infuriated beasts would rush almost into the very houses of the settlers. Young hogs were caught and carried off in sight of their owners, and within gunshot of their pens. A huge, growling monster seized a good-sized hog in his paws, and ran off with it, standing on his hind legs, satisfying his hunger as he went. The red barn built for Col. Oliver Peabody
One dark night, Mr. Oliver Peabody, the same we have spoken of before, was disturbed by the loud squealing of his hogs. As unsuspecting as before, he rushed out in his nightdress to the yard where they were kept, back of his barn. Scarcely yet fully awake, he placed his hands upon the top rail, and stood peering into the darkness, shouting lustily to whatever might be disturbing his hogs. So intent was he on driving away the intruder, that he was conscious of nothing until he felt the warm breath of a large bear breathing directly in his face. The huge monster had left the hogs on his first approach, and, rearing herself on her hind legs, placed her paws on the same rail, near his hands, and stood ready for the new-year salutation of the Russians—a hug and a kiss. Realizing fully his danger, he darted away for his house, the bear following close at his heels. He had barely time to reach his door, and throw himself against it as a fastening, when Madam Bruin came rushing against it. The frail thing trembled and squeaked on its wooden hinges, but his wife placed the wooden bar across it, and thus it withstood the shock. Opening the door slightly, on the first opportunity, he let out his dog. The dog, used to the business, seized the bear fiercely by the throat, as she sat on her haunches eyeing the door. Not so easily driven off, however, she threw the mastiff with tremendous force against the house, and leaping a fence near at hand, sat coolly down. The noble dog, as soon as he could recover from the stunning blow, again attacked her. With still more force she threw him this time against the cabin, displacing some of its smaller timbers, near where some of the children were asleep in a truckle-bed. Bounding away, she ran some eighty rods, to the house of one Stephen Messer, seized a large hog, and leaping a fence three feet high with it in her arms, ran thirty rods, and sat down to her feast. Before Messrs. Peabody and Messer could reach her, she had finished her repast and walked slowly off into the woods.
About the middle of June, 1850, one of the most tragical scenes transpired in this town that ever took place in any region. Happily the principal actors in it were not natives of the town or region, but foreigners. A contractor on the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which was then being constructed through the Androscoggin valley, after burying his wife in Bethel, went to board with a Mr. George W. Freeman, a blacksmith. This man was in the employ of the contractor, helping him build a very expensive bridge over Wild River. Mr. Freeman's family consisted of a wife and three children. He had been somewhat remarkable as a kind and faithful husband and indulgent parent, and nothing had ever occurred to mar the peace of the family until the advent of the contractor into it. Mrs. Freeman, young and beautiful, was very attractive in looks and address, but in all respects, heretofore, had shown herself an exemplary woman and devoted wife. Freeman, unable to harbor the thought of anything wrong in his wife, for a long time passed by many things which caused him much uneasiness. The particular attentions of the contractor to his wife he tried long and hard to construe as only the civilities due from a gentleman to a lady. As each day the attentions became more marked, and the evident partiality of the two for each other's society became more manifest, the loathed suspicion worked itself gradually into the terrible conviction that his companion was yielding to the wiles of the seducer. So bold had they become in their course, that scarcely a day passed but they rode out together, sometimes extending their rides to late hours in the night. At last they went to Bethel, a distance of nine miles, to attend a ball, and did not return until near morning. This fully roused Mr. Freeman from his heretofore almost stupid forbearance. He undressed and put his children to bed, and then calmly awaited the return of the guilty pair. Not in anger, but intensely in earnest, he expostulated with them, warning them of the consequences of their guilty course. Passionately he besought his wife to remember their hitherto happy life, and spare himself and her babes the disgrace and loss of such a companion and a mother. It was all, however, to no purpose.
Saturday, December 18, 1802 Paper: New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, NH) Volume: IV Issue: 196 Page: 3
Shortly after the ball at Bethel, Mrs. Freeman threw off all restraint, and asked her husband for a divorce. Her affection, she said, for him was gone, and it was better for them to separate. She could never again love him as she had, and to live with him in her present state of mind was unendurable. She not only asked him for divorcement, but told him that, with or without it, she should certainly leave him. That she was in earnest was clearly manifest. She commenced her preparations for a journey, proceeding even so far as to pack some of her things.
The contractor's office was in Freeman's house, and his clerk was almost constantly employed in it. By chance Freeman overheard one day a conversation between his wife and the clerk. She had come for advice, and imagining no opposition from the clerk, disclosed to him her plans. Contrary to her expectations, the noble young man reprimanded her severely for her conduct, and warmly advised her for her good. Freeman heard all, and it confirmed his worst suspicions.
Previous to these active preparations of Mrs. Freeman for her departure, the contractor had left for New York. Before leaving, it seems, it had been arranged between them that Mrs. Freeman should soon follow to meet at some place yet to be agreed upon. Freeman learned these facts but too soon. Not long after the contractor had left, a beautiful trunk, marked for Mrs. Freeman, was one day left at the door, when Mrs. Freeman chanced to be out. With a shop-key Freeman opened the trunk in his shop, and there full evidence of the intentions of the pair was manifest. Beautiful dresses and jewelry for herself and children were the contents, and under all a letter disclosing the plans. She was to meet the contractor at Syracuse, N.Y. There were minute directions as to the routes to travel, and particular caution to fasten the door of her bedchamber, at night, in the different hotels. The day for her departure was named. He concealed from his wife the trunk and letter, and she never probably knew of its arrival.
The day for Mrs. Freeman's departure was already fixed, and the night preceding her leaving in the morning had arrived. Calmly Freeman sat among his family during the evening, and on their retiring had embraced and kissed them according to his usual custom. Long he lingered near his wife, but, at length, bidding her the last good-night, retired to his room. They had not slept together for some time, a servant girl occupying the bed with his wife and young child. Stillness had settled down upon the house, when suddenly a piercing shriek broke upon the night, startling every sleeper from his slumbers. "I am murdered! I am murdered!" was all that could be distinguished in the confusion which ensued. Each hurried whence the voice proceeded, and there, in Mrs. Freeman's room, weltering in blood, lay the unhappy wife, shrieking in paroxysms of terror. She rose up in bed, as they entered, the mutilated, bleeding arm hanging at her side. Medical assistance was soon at hand, the wounded limb amputated and carefully dressed, but to no effect; from loss of blood the murdered woman died but a few hours after. A few buckshot were taken from the head. The shattered condition of the arm, and the broken window, made it evident in what manner the poor woman had been murdered. Sleeping on her side, the murderer had aimed directly at her heart, but, missing, had discharged the whole contents of the gun into her arm. He had accomplished, however, his purpose as well as though he had not missed his aim.
The murdered wife was conscious who had murdered her. Her husband was the only one of the large family who gathered not around her bedside at her fearful summons. "It was my husband," were her words. And the full weight of her great guilt bursting upon her too late, she could but groan and ejaculate, "O, my own dear husband! And will he not come! O, George, my husband, shall I not see him, to be forgiven!" She died, not suspecting that her husband was dead, but that he avoided seeing her from grief. Fully forgiving him, she died with his name upon her lips.
But to turn from the sad spectacle of the wife to the still sadder sight of her husband. Instant search was made for him as the murderer of his wife, and after long hours of hunting, about a mile from his house, he was found dead, lying in a pool of his own blood. His throat was cut from ear to ear, his hand still grasping the fatal razor. By him lay his gun and a piece of rope. The gun, it seems, he had tried, but it had not done its work, merely bruising badly one cheek.
A jury of inquest was holden on his body, and a verdict rendered according to facts. On examination of his affairs, letters were found, written by his own hand, giving directions in regard to his children, and the disposition he wished to be made of his property when he was dead. It is supposed, from some things in his case, especially one important incident, that until a late period in his life, he did not intend to kill his wife, but the contractor.
He asked the clerk of the contractor, one day, [on] which side of the bed they held in common he, the contractor, slept? giving an occasion by this for an inference that he had some design upon him. But the contractor leaving before the design could be executed, and determined, as he had declared, that the contractor should never enjoy his wife, he made up his mind to kill her, and did actually perform the dreadful deed we have rehearsed. How strongly this whole affair impresses upon us the importance of watching against the first emotions of any great sin, and praying earnestly the prayer taught us by the Saviour, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," we certainly need not say. There being no minister in Gilead at this time, Rev. Mr. Leland, of Bethel, attended the funeral on the occasion. He preached to a very large concourse of people on the text, "When lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."
|Peabody Tavern, Gilead, Maine, 1895; courtesy of Joanne Peabody Stewart|