Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Strange Disappearance -- and Reappearance -- of Mary Grote of Pelham in 1884: Part II

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(This is Part II of a posting that begins with Part I posted on Friday, March 11, 2005).

The Strange Reappearance of Mary Grote

At about 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, October 11, a New York Times reporter was searching with farmer Francis May for poor Mary Grote in one of the three barns on the Bartow estate. The reporter observed a hayloft full of hay, accessible by ladder and reportedly said "Here's a soft place" and asked for a pitchfork to turn over the hay. Farmer May reportedly said "That's nothing . . . I turned that hay over myself. There's nothing there. You don't need any fork." The reporter took Farmer May at his word and "went on to other [hay] mows and other barns, never questioning Mr. May's word."

About an hour later, a little before noon, a son of local postmaster H. H. Scott was near the same barn and, through an opening in the side of the barn, saw a hand. He ran to Farmer May's farmhouse to alert others. According to a news account of what happened next:

"Mr. May and his son went to the barn with several women who were about. Turning over the hay, they saw Mary in her blue calico dress, with eyes closed. She appeared dead. At that instant, a few minutes before noon, Justice Steve and Constable Shute, of New-Rochelle, drove up to the house. Without waiting to secure their horses they ran to the barn, after hearing the cries of the boys, and climbed a steep ladder into the mow. They at once saw that Mary was only feigning faintness. 'Come now, Mary,' said Justice Steve, 'you must come out and answer our questions. I am a Judge and you must obey.' This threat was too much for the poor girl. She opened her eyes and saw that the Justice had her by one arm and the constable by the other. 'Leave me alone,' she said, 'and I'll get up.' She was left alone and she got up. She had been buried under half a ton of hay. She brushed the seeds out of her flowing black hair, skipped nimbly down the upright ladder with just a glimpse of a neatly buttoned boot, and made straightaway for the house." Hidden Under a Haymow - Mary Grote Found But the Mystery Not Solved, N.Y. Times, Oct. 12, 1884, p. 1.

Things in Pelham Get Ugly

Young Mary Grote refused to say anything about where she had been. She was "dumb as a post to all questions" and would only say "Mrs. May made a face at me . . . and I went away". Id. According to the same report, "No question would she answer, nothing else would she say. She hid her rosy cheeks in her hands behind a bedstead post in the May homestead, and acted like a sullen child in need of a good sound spanking." Id.

Things quickly grew ugly, however, because local residents suspected that Mary Grote was protecting some young man who had sullied her honor. Justice Steve insisted on taking an affidavit from Mary Grote, though she swore that "she had been away with no man and had had nothing to do with any man". Id.

The New York Times was merciless in its reporting, recounting opinions that Mary Grote was protecting someone in Farmer May's family and that the family was threatening her to force her silence. The paper reported:

"It is safe to say that revelations will be made effectually breaking up the May family for some time to come. Bartow is in a ferment. A few think Mary hysterical and crazy. But the majority see the demon at the bottom of the well to which the girl has been drawn. Were she not under the care and threats of certain members of the household, they say, her story would soon be told." Id.

As things grew uglier, one news report quoted Farmer May as saying "py tam [by damn], I shoot some neighbors if this talk not shtop." The same report further noted "Mr. May was in earnest". The Escapade At Bartow - Mary Grote Now Unwelcome At Farmer May's, N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 1884, p. 5.

It seems that rumors swirled that Mary Grote may have been "with" Farmer May, his son or a "red-headed boy called George employed as a farm hand." As one report put it, "All sorts of wild rumors were afloat, and all the men of the May homestead were implicated therein". Id. To inflame matters more, the New York Times reported that an abortion may have been involved, recounting the rumor that "the well-dressed New-Yorker mentioned yesterday has employed criminal means to rid himself of a prospective family." Hidden Under a Haymow - Mary Grote Found But the Mystery Not Solved, N.Y. Times, Oct. 12, 1884, p. 1.

Burn the Tramps Out!

Local officials and local residents used the scandal as an opportunity to burn and destroy the local haunts of tramps and vagrants. At noon, on October 12:

"[I]t had been decided to go north along the railway and break up some of the tramps' homes. Rain until 1:30 o'clock caused many to back out of the agreement, so that only a few started. first was set on fire the tumble-down shanty of rails and saplings which had been occupied by one of the wandering arabs since 1878 until this Summer. Other huts were found, and at 3 o'clock this afternoon half a dozen fires were blazing between here and Pelham Manor." Id. As for the tramp cave that could sleep 100, Pelham officials announced on October 12 that, the next day, "the tramp cave will be blown up." The Escapade At Bartow - Mary Grote Now Unwelcome At Farmer May's, N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 1884, p. 5.

Farmer Francis May Has Had Enough

Mary Grote admitted that she had lied when she said that she had left because "Mrs. May made a face at me". Yet, she refused to answer why she had lied and would respond to no more questions about the matter. As one report put it, in response to any question, the poor "damsel buried her rosy cheeks in her palms, pulled her flowing hair over her face, and was as dumb as a Sound oyster under 10 fathoms of water." Local residents would not let the matter rest. In fact, the "May farmhouse was overrun with visitors . . . mostly women". In addition, the "Bartow hotels, too, were overrun with visitors". Id.

Regardless of what may or may not have happened, Farmer Francis May clearly had had enough. Despite giving his "word of honor" to the local Justice of the Peace in front of a newspaper reporter that "he would keep Mary there for at least a week until certain clues could be traced," Mr. May reportedly "made a mighty effort to ship Mary away". Id. In fact, scarcely had he made his promise to the Justice of the Peace when he urged the girl to leave the farm with her sister Annie's friend, Carrie Hartmann. Id.

It seems that time was of the essence. No one had yet sworn out a formal complaint against Mary Grote. If Farmer May could get her out of there, he seemed to hope, there likely would be no formal investigation. As one account put it:

"Paying no attention to his word as given to Justice Steve, Mr. May is determined to railroad the girl away. It is the best thing he can do, say his friends. With Mary gone the case will be dropped. With her here some who are loud in threats but afraid to act will be compelled to swear out a complaint on which rigid investigation will follow. The action of the authorities is generally condemned in not at the outset acting vigorously." Id.

Farmer May took Mary to the train station to meet Carrie Hartmann for the 9:00 train, but Carrie did not show and he returned with Mary to the farmhouse. At 2:00 p.m. Farmer May reportedly exclaimed "Py tam! . . . Mary must go to Niyarruck on the 4 o'clock train." It seems, however, his exclamation was intended to throw off the press. At 4:00 that day (October 12) a New York Times reporter staked out the Bartow Station and observed that Mary Grote was not at the station for the train. The reporter made a bee-line for Farmer May's house where he was told "She gone, py tam!" The reporter observed her, however, through a parlor door. Farmer May sheepishly admitted that he planned to drive her into New York City under cover of darkness that night.

Farmer May Defends Himself and Mary Grote Departs

Farmer May feared the worst for his reputation and seems to have taken some steps to defend himself. On October 14, 1884, the New York Times published a prominent account entitled "Mr. May Defends Himself" saying:

"Miss Mary Grote, whose recent escapade has been related at length in The Times, was in the employ of Mr. Francis May for three months, and up to last Thursday there was nothing, he says, in her conduct that would lead him to think badly of her. Mr. May says there is not a word of truth in the imputations that have been made that improper relations existed between her and any member of his family. He had lived at Bartow for 26 years, and having won the respect of his neighbors, feels keenly the imputations made." Mr. May Defends Himself, N.Y. Times, Oct. 14, 1884, p. 2.

It seems that at about this time, Mary Grote provided some sort of explanation that satisfied local authorities. According to a report that appeared the following day (October 15):

"The servant girl, Mary Grote, who recently created so much excitement in Bartow-on-the-Sound, where she was employed by Mr. Francis May, by hiding in the haymow of the barn, has, it is said, made a satisfactory explanation of her conduct, and has been given leave of absence for a few weeks. She has come to this city on a visit to her sister." City and Suburban News - Westchester County, N.Y. Times, Oct. 15, 1884, p. 8.

Published accounts do not seem to reveal the nature of the "satisfactory explanation" that seems to have ended the matter, leaving us to speculate regarding the strange disappearance and even stranger reappearance of this young german emigrant who lived for a short time in Pelham, NY more than 120 years ago.

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