Harriet Fox: Drowned at the Wethersfield Ferry

“Connecticut River at Hartford 18 feet above low water mark. Heavy rain still prevailed, with much thunder.”—Beckwith’s Almanac

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Harriet Leonard Hale Fox, 1/4-plate daguerreotype, circa 1852. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Harriet Leonard Hale, scion of an old and venerable New England family, was the third child and only daughter of Russell Hale. Hale was born 22 July, 1799, in Glastonbury, Hartford County, Connecticut, and died 13 April, 1849, in that same place. Harriet’s mother, Harriet Ely, was  born 17 April, 1803, in Agawam, Massachusetts, and died 2 September, 1880. Russell was the son of Thomas Hale of Glastonbury (10 June, 1768–12 Feb., 1819) and Lucretia House (1771–24 September, 1835). The Hales descended from Samuel Hale, born 1 July, 1615, at Watton-at-Stone, Hertfordshire, England, who came to Connecticut as a young man, married Mary Smith in about 1642, and died in Glastonbury on 9 November, 1693.

Harriet Hale was born 14 April, 1833, in Glastonbury. Her two older brothers were Robert Ely (1827–1847) and Henry Russell (1830–1876). The 1850 Census of Glastonbury included Harriet Ely Hale as a widow, together with her daughter Harriet and her son Henry, a farmer. It is the only census that Harriet Hale Fox appeared on, as the one compiled a decade previously, when she was seven in 1840, listed the names of household heads only.

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A daguerreotype of Henry Fox, circa 1852, now in a private collection. The daguerreotypes of both Henry and Harriet were sold concurrently online.

At age 18, Harriet wed blond, bearded, and bespectacled Henry Fox, a man twelve years her senior, on 5 October, 1851. He had been born in East Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut, 19 April, 1821, and was the son of Leonard Fox (1792–1866) and Hannah Nicholson (1795–1894). The Fox family had been in New England since emigrating from London in the 17th century. Members of the clan participated in the Revolutionary War, and Leonard Fox fought in the War of 1812.

The 1850 census of Hartford included Henry Fox, a cooper—a maker or repairer of barrels and casks—who dwelt on a farm with his parents; his brother Clement (b. 1817), who was also a cooper; sister Lucy A. (b. 1826); brother Leonard (b. 1825)—a burnisher; and sister Eliza (b. 1831).

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An advert for H. & D. Fox, Hartford Courant, 4 June, 1850.

It was at about this time that Henry went into business with his paternal cousin Dudley, the son of Solomon and Clarissa Low Fox. The cousins appear to have been exceptionally close all of their lives.

Dudley, who was born 8 May, 1823, was a silversmith and a tinner. In the early 1850s, the Hartford Courant ran adverts for H&D Fox, selling tinware and stoves out of a shop at 49 Main Street. Other adverts mention the sale of cleaning fluids, brass and sheet metal for bespoke projects, and cooking pots and pans.

After marrying, Henry and Harriet quickly produced two daughters—Lucy Ely (8 October, 1852-20 March, 1910) and Julia Helen (2 November, 1854-26 Feb., 1946). These little girls were aged just four and two when they lost their mother.

“As they drove off the bridge into the water, they began to apprehend the extent of their danger.”

The Wethersfield Ferry, now known as the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry, is the oldest still operating in the United States. It began in 1655, more than a century before the founding of an independent nation, as a raft propelled by pole across the Connecticut River. Later, its movement was powered by a horse on a treadmill, and by steam after 1876. The ferry is today part of the Glastonbury-Rocky Hill Ferry Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A photo postcard of the Wethersfield Ferry, now the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry, taken in about 1910.

The sixth of August, 1856, was a day busy with misfortune. Beckwith’s Almanac kept a running daily list of things that happened in the Hartford area—many of them macabre. For instance, on the sixth, “Patrick Sheridan, a well digger, and one of his assistants, were at work at the bottom of a well which they had been digging for a Mrs. Ely, in Fair Haven, when the earth suddenly gave way, and buried them with sand and stones nearly thirty feet below the surface.” In Hartford, “An unfinished house…belonging to Sam’l J. Tuttle, was set on fire and burned down.” The entry about Harriet reads: “The wife of Mr. Henry Fox, of Hockanum, was drowned at the crossing of the Wethersfield Ferry.”

Another, and almost completely erroneous report appeared in the 7 August Courant: “The steamer Granite State reports that as she was passing Glastonbury this afternoon, a woman by the name of Fox, wife of Henry Fox of Chester, either jumped or fell off the dock and was drowned.”

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The steamer Granite State from which Harriet’s drowning was sighted. This ship met its own tragic end in 1883 when it caught fire after an engine room explosion and burned to the waterline. Two passengers died and many were injured.

Thanks to court records of Fox vs. Town of Glastonbury, a suit in which Henry sued the town for negligence leading to Harriet’s death, the full and correct story of that day can be detailed. The scene was set by conditions reported in Beckwith’s Almanac: “Connecticut River at Hartford 18 feet above low water mark. Heavy rain still prevailed, with much thunder.”

In his opinion on the case, Judge David Curtis Sanders recounted, “An inlet from the Connecticut River, called the cove, runs up to the main land in the town of Glastonbury. About twenty-seven rods from its mouth, a highway had been laid through this cove to the Wethersfield ferry, and a causeway constructed thereon for the accommodation of public travel. The causeway…was raised about two feet above the ordinary surface of the water.”

Sanford continued, “The water in the cove, along the sides of the causeway, was ordinarily about one foot deep, but in times of freshet it frequently rose so high as to submerge the causeway, and render its passage perilous and sometimes impossible.”

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Hartford Courant, 13 November, 1859

According to the judge, at about 3 p.m., Harriet was at the reins of a horse and wagon, headed for the ferry crossing. With her was Dudley Fox’s wife Clarinda Grant, whom he had married in New Britain in 1844. Both women resided “about a half mile from the east end of the causeway.”

As noted by Beckwith’s, the river was swollen and turgid, and Judge Sanford writes that water was already covering the causeway.  “The deceased and her companion stopped in front of the house of Mrs. French, a short distance from the causeway, but in full view of it, and there observed that the water was running over [it]…. The deceased inquired of Mrs. French whether people crossed there that day, to which Mrs. F. replied they had, but that she had not before noticed that the water was over the road. The deceased then inquired of Mrs. F. if she would dare to cross. Mrs. F. replied that she would be afraid, unless she had a very gentle horse; and the deceased remarked that their horse was perfectly gentle.”

Harriet then guided her wagon toward the causeway, where, according to Sanford, “the cove and the condition of the water in it could not have escaped their notice. They saw, and observed, that the causeway was entirely submerged, that a swift and strong current of turbid water was passing over it, that there was no rail or visible object of any kind, above the surface of the water, on the sides of the causeway, by which to be protected or guided in their course.”

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The daguerreotype of Harriet in its case and pictured with the identifying note, “Harriet Leonard Hale, wife of Henry Fox and Mother of Julia H. Baker.”

In the middle of the causeway was a bridge raised about 2.5 feet from the level of the causeway. Sanford notes that the wagon made it to bridge, the water having been as high as “the hubs of the fore wheels of wagon.” What occurred next could only have been recounted by Clarinda to the court, as only she was privy to it, “On the bridge they stopped, noticed and remarked on the height of the water and the rapidity of its current, and felt some degree of alarm, but concluded to proceed. As they drove off the bridge into the water, they began to apprehend the extent of their danger and became frightened; the horse stopped; they urged him forward with the whip, and becoming more frightened, they probably tried to turn around and went off the causeway, nearly at right angle with it, into the deep water on the north side.”

The wagon sunk—Harriet, Clarinda, and the horse with it. Two boys in a boat nearby saw the incident and managed to haul Clarinda from the river, but it was too late for Harriet.

Judge Sanford opined that although “a majority of us are of the opinion that the town had been culpably negligent” for not erecting a fence or railing along the causeway as was demanded by law, the court found that “however negligent the defendants may have been, the unfortunate woman who lost her life contributed to the production of that result by her own culpable imprudence and indiscretion.” Harriet and Clarinda had “voluntarily assumed the risks and all the consequences,” the court concluded. One can imagine what a stinging slap this was for the widow and father, Henry Fox.

The body of 23-year-old Harriet was buried in Glastonbury’s Green Cemetery. She sleeps there today, beneath a weathered stone, with Henry by her side. Her husband would live another two decades before he joined her.

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The gate of Green Cemetery, Glastonbury. Photo by Jan Franco.

“Mr. Fox had a fad of using the head of a fox whenever he could and Mrs. Baker recalls very distinctly his cutting the fox on pieces of cork.”

By 1860, Henry had returned to his family home. The census enumerated him with his parents, Leonard and Hannah, as well as his brother Leonard, Jr., who was a mariner, and his daughter Lucy, aged 7. Henry listed his occupation as schoolteacher; his business with cousin Dudley ended some years before. Henry’s second daughter, Julia, was not with the rest of her family in 1860. She lived up the street with Dudley, Clarinda, and their young daughter for a number of years—why this was so is unknown.

In 1854, Dudley Fox had built a fine house at 177 Naubuc Avenue in East Hartford, “producing tin, pewter, and silver-plated goods from a small shop next to his home,” notes a Rootsweb site on American silversmiths. “The inventory of the full contents of the shop found in the East Hartford Land Records dated January 20, 1868, reads, ‘17 Rolls of Stock about 1,300 lbs. in the front of Store also 15 Rolls of Stock 1000 lbs. in Back Room together with 500 lbs scrapes or cuttings. 5 shelves of wooden chucks. 3 Lathes in Running order, one Large Press & Die, One Small Press & Dies, One Drop Press & Dies, One Large Press Down Seller, Two Squaring Shears, One Small Laze Folding Machine, One Drop Press down below, 2 Melting Kettles, also Sett of Copper or Brass Molds for Castings.’”

Additionally, Dudley was postmaster for Hockanum from 12 May, 1865, to 27 November, 1867. During this tenure, to comply with an 1860 federal requirement that stamps be thoroughly cancelled to prevent reuse, Dudley created a whimsical running fox that is beloved by philatelists today.

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A hand-cancelled three-cent postage stamp with the imprint of Dudley’s running fox.

W. J. Duffney has written extensively about Dudley and his running fox, however, in his work, Duffney misidentified Julia as the daughter of Dudley and Clarinda, rather than that they served as Julia’s foster parents after her mother drowned. The second cousin mentioned by Duffney, “Mrs. Baker…who for a time lived with [Dudley’s] family,” was Julia Fox after her marriage to Isaiah Baker, Jr. (6 June, 1856-30 Nov., 1923).

Duffney reports, “In 1920, collector J. Arthur Ritchie wrote to Hockanum requesting answers to a series of questions that he proposed. It was about this time that the Running Fox fancy cancellation first came to public attention. Isaiah Baker, Jr., sent a short but informative response to the query. He wrote that ‘Mrs. Baker [said that] Mr. Fox had a fad of using the head of a fox whenever he could and Mrs. Baker recalls very distinctly his cutting the fox on pieces of cork, striking same on a pad of black ink and cancelling stamps on envelopes. She knows they quickly wore out, or the eyes of the fox would fill, and he was very fussy about having that clear, so new ones were frequently made.’”

When Dudley Fox died in Hartford, aged 66, on August 23, 1889,  “His funeral was a rather large event. Organizations of which he was a member — the Putnam Phalanx, the Eastern Star Lodge, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Masonic Lodge of East Hartford, and St. Thomas’s Church—had representatives serve as bearers. Fellow jewelers of the city closed their shops in his honor and the flag on the Putnam Phalanx Armory flew at half mast. It was said that Dudley would be long remembered, and he has been, not just for his ‘frank and open-hearted’ character, but for making the marvelous Running Fox fancy cancellations,” Duffney noted.

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The graves of Henry and Harriet Hale Fox, Green Cemetery, Glastonbury. Photo by SheWolf.

In 1870, the census of Saybrook, Middlesex County, Connecticut, enumerated Henry Fox as a coal dealer. Both daughters were with him, grown into teenagers. Also listed in the household was “Hattie B.,” a new Mrs. Fox. She was Harriet King Bidwell (1833–1902), eldest daughter of farmer Julius Bidwell (1805–26 Feb., 1889) and his wife Rhoda Cook (16 Dec., 1810-8 Nov., 1863). Hattie was baptized 2 July, 1837, at an East Hartford Congregationalist church by the Rev. Mr. Spring.

From the censuses, we know that Henry did not marry Hattie before 1860, and that he was her spouse by 1870. Their union lasted less than a decade. The Courant reported the “sudden” death of Henry Fox on 8 June, 1874, at the rather ironically named Deep River, Middlesex County. He was 53.

Before 1880, Hattie Bidwell Fox relocated to Massachusetts, where she worked as a dressmaker in Holyoke. She died at age 69 and is buried in Green Cemetery, although not with her husband and the first Harriet.

After their father passed away, both Lucy and Hannah became schoolteachers. On March 10, 1881, Julia married Isaiah Baker. He was a member of the Masonic Order, who served as an officer of the rather pompously named Charter Oak Lodge of Perfection in Hartford. Lucy married insurance agent Charles McCloud Webster (b. 1847) on 13 September, 1882. Julia and Isaiah had two children—Helen Eunisa (1885–1959) and Leverett Chase (1892–1975). Lucy and Charles had four children—Raymond Wing (b. 1884), Harold McCloud (b. 1886); Zulette Hale (b. 1888); and Florence Pease (b. 1892). Ω

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The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry today. Photo Courtesy Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

5 thoughts on “Harriet Fox: Drowned at the Wethersfield Ferry”

  1. Is this group of Foxes the ones that are related to you family? I know they aren’t mine, because my Foxes are really Fuchs, who came from Germany to SW New Jersey and ended up in Salem County, NJ where the rest of my maternal grandmother’s family came from (they changed the spelling of their name from Fuchs to Fox within a generation or two after coming to the US through Philadelphia, PA). Great article! What a sad result of the court case, but I can see from the judge’s point of view that it really was BOTH the company that ran the ferry’s fault and the fact that the two women did use prudence in deciding whether or not to ride it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was curious about your possible relation to the Fox family, as well. And I too can agree with the judge that both parties bore responsibility in the death. Unrelated to that, I used to make stamps and I completely enjoyed the side story on the fox cancellation stamp. I understand how he must have felt, trying to keep a clear print and having to make new cork stamps. Luckily, I had rubber erasers to work with and never had that blurring problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story-telling, the tale of poor Harriet’s death seems like a scene from a movie, I felt her terrifying realization that she had made a terrible mistake by deciding to try and force the horse across that bridge.

    Like

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