Research into historic home reveals family secrets, tragedy

Jan 31, 2019

In the mid-1800s, tragedy struck the Reed family of Dartmouth in ways that would affect the family for generations to come. First and second wives died of the diseases of the era, families lost children, and grief-stricken family members took their own lives. 

It is a history that has largely been forgotten, only known today due to scant references in deeds, obituaries, and legal notices. That is, until historians dig deep to uncover it.

And that’s exactly what Bob Harding, President of the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society, inadvertently did in what started out as a routine project to save a Dartmouth house.

The house, located at 197 Horseneck Rd., is under threat of demolition. The Dartmouth Historical Commission approved a six-month demolition delay, giving Harding time to probe the house’s history.

The house, which might date back to the late 1700s, was once owned by a man named Jeremiah Gidley. As was common at the time, the land passed through his family, first to his daughter Judith Gidley.

Judith had five children, including a son, James A. Reed, and a daughter, Hannah E. Reed. In 1852, her son James bought the inherited land from her for $125. He was 20 at the time, and listed his occupation as a farmer. He also acquired more land near the property from another family.

In the mid-1800s, buying land was a critical first step in marriage, as a newly forming family prepared for a life together. In 1854, James, now 23, married his first wife, Sylvia W. Francis, who was 20 years old.

One of his sisters, Hannah, passed away of a tuberculosis-type illness in 1856, but his other sister Susan had married a mariner named Asa Stephens in 1857. By 1860, James and Sylvia were parents to a one-year-old girl named Hannah.

But in the mid-1860s, the Reed family suffered a series of tragedies.

Sylvia Reed died in about 1864 at the age of 30. The following year, census records show James A. Reed, now a widower, living with his two children, six-year-old Hannah and four-year-old Sylvia W., and his sister Susan. Susan was also listed as a widower, and Harding believes her husband might have been lost at sea between 1861 and 1865.

In November 1865, James, now 34, married his second wife, Mary M. Renyolds, who was 21. Again, tragedy struck the family. In February 1896, James’ daughter Sylvia W. Reed gave birth to a stillborn baby, who would have been James's grandchild. In May 1896, James lost his second wife Mary at age 50 to cancer.

On June 28, 1896, James A. Reed was found dead in the barn at age 64 of an apparent suicide. His death was covered by major media outlets in Boston, including the Boston Globe under the headline "Suicide due to despondency."  

The story does not end there, however. Part of the reason Harding chose to share the history he had uncovered is to offer insight onto the impact of tragedy, particularly suicide, across generations of families.

James’ daughter, Hannah E. Reed, went on to marry Sherman W. Mosher some time around 1900. They had a son named Harwood, who was one year old in 1900. But in 1908, Mosher died of diabetes. Six months later, Hannah took her own life at the age of 48.

“Some events in a family’s history have very long effects, sometimes over more than one generation,” Harding noted. “Those things are never mentioned, but they have big impacts.”