Old photographs allow us priceless glimpses of times past, but it can be hard to relate to the people pictured because of their serious expressions. Many of us learned that early photography required people to be still too long to make smiling practical. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the technology existed to capture more fleeting expressions. Other possible explanations are that it wasn’t standard to smile in photographs because of bad teeth, cultural bias, or imitation of the solemn expressions in portrait paintings.
Whatever the reason, most of our older pictures at the Society feature people looking serious, including many from the schools. However, even among early photographs, there are some surprising moments of personality. One of our favorite school pictures was taken of the West Acton Grammar School around 1886. The photographer must have had a good rapport with the children and, very unusually, let them hold objects. There was obviously no technical difficulty in capturing their smiles.
In a picture from South Acton school around the beginning of the twentieth century, several students were smiling. Perhaps the reason was the boy apparently hiding behind the back row with another boy gesturing in his direction. The captured moment was a typical one in the life of a teacher, but an unusual moment of spontaneity in a class photo. (The teacher may not have felt like smiling at that moment.)
Sometimes, the choice of subject is the most telling part of the picture. A carefully composed image from another glass plate collection shows that there were also cat lovers among Acton's Brook Street Smith family. The hand at the bottom right shows that someone was trying manage the dark cat's reaction to being on display.
For us in this era of photographic abundance and ease of culling and editing images, it is good to remember that those serious people in old photographs had just as much personality as we do. It was not expected that they smile in a photograph, but they may have cracked a joke or simply smiled in relief the moment after the photo was taken. That's something we all can relate to.
We reported in an earlier blog post the story of Harriet M. Turner and Estelle B. (Turner) Davis, sisters who collected songs in the South and played them for northern and European audiences, enjoying a brief period of fame. We recently came upon a piece of their sheet music entitled Rain that is owned by the Society. It was published by H. M. Turner, 113 Pinckney Street, Boston and has the Misses Turner's photo on the front. Newspapers seem to have used this picture (or nearly identical ones) as well; Estelle's marriage announcement in the Boston Globe in 1916 and an article about Harriet in the Boston Post in 1919 both used close-ups that allow us to confirm that Estelle was on the left and Harriet was on the right:
The Society may also have other Turner family photos. Opening a long-unused drawer in the Hosmer House revealed a small stack of photographs, among them this one from Columbus, Georgia, where Harriet and Estelle Turner grew up. We believe the photos may have come from the house of Estelle (Turner) Davis who lived in East Acton in her later years.
Could the young man be a relative of the Turner sisters, possibly a brother? (See below for information on the Turner family.) The photographer was Alpha A. Williams. We are trying to narrow down the dates. This photo must have been taken sometime after 1879 when A. A. Williams had a studio at 59 Broad. An 1886 map of Columbus showed his studio at the corner of Broad and 12th streets but did not show his exact address. In 1906, he was listed in the Columbus directory as working at 1151 1/2 Broad.
Are the other portraits of relatives? If you can help us to identify them, we would love to figure out who they are.
Turner Family Background
Parents of the Turner Sisters:
Alonzo Turner (born 1827 in NY, carpenter, lived in Columbus, Georgia by 1850, died 1904, buried in Linwood Cemetery, Columbus, GA)
Sarah E. Yarborough (born about 1838, birthplace given variously but probably Georgia, apparently was living with another family in Columbus, Georgia in 1850, married Alonzo Turner in Russell County, Alabama in 1856, had at least 7 children, was still in Columbus, Georgia with Alonzo in 1880, was living with daughters in New York City in 1900, death so far unknown)
When this photograph was donated to the Society, no one was sure that the picture was of an Acton team. The only person identified was Ernest R. Teele (front row, second from the left). He was born in 1877, so the picture was probably taken in the mid-1890s to early 1900s.
Scanning and enlarging the picture showed that some of the light uniforms are marked “W A.” Guessing that they might have been from West Acton, we searched for mention of a village team in Acton newspapers available in online archives. Available West Acton news items yielded nothing. However, newspapers of the time tended to publish “locals” from nearby towns. It turned out that for the period in question, searching the archives of the Concord Enterprise was much more productive for us. The earliest confirmation of the existence of a West Acton village football team was in the December 5, 1895 issue that reported that West Acton had played Maynard on Thanksgiving. (An October 25, 1894 issue mentioned a practice game between Maynard and “Acton.”) The September 24, 1896 issue stated that “the West Acton football eleven, Captain Wm. G. Rodway” was about to play its first game of the season against the Concord High School team. Other games were announced in the October 10, 1896 Boston Post (with Burdett College) and in the November 5, 1896 issue of the Concord Enterprise (with Maynard). The Concord Enterprise of November 12, 1896 even yielded the team’s roster at the time: Rodway (captain, back), Steele (center), Smiley (guard), Perkins (tackle), Barteaux (end), Losaw (guard), Littlefield (tackle), King (end), Holt (quarterback), Allen (fullback), and Guilford (halfback). Apparently, a Boston Daily Globe article (Sept. 27, 1896) had reported on the Concord game, listing the team as the “Actons;” the roster had seven identical players (Bateaux, Rodway, Smiley, Holt, Littlefield, Gilford and King) and four others; Blood (end), Beach (tackle), Sawyer (halfback), and Souther (fullback).
The Boston Daily Globe, November 21, 1896 stated that the West Acton eleven were looking for a Thanksgiving afternoon opponent and would pay half of the expenses for 14 men, inquiries to be addressed to B. S. Holt.
Maynard's news items had a different perspective. In the November 5, 1896 Concord Enterprise, West Acton's victory over Maynard was reported, along with a statement that the referee had favored the West Acton team in every decision. We found only one mention of the team after 1896, a Maynard news item in the Acton Concord Enterprise of December 2, 1897:
“The football game scheduled for Thanksgiving morning between the Maynards and West Actons did not take place, as the visitors failed to show up.”
Thanks to the Concord paper and an aggrieved Maynard reporter, we now know that West Acton did indeed have a football team in at least the late 1895-1897 period. There were also, at various points in time, a baseball team that played in the summers and a basketball team that seems to have played indoors at Littlefield's Hall according to a February 17, 1904 Enterprise article. We would love to know more about Acton's early teams; if you have more information or pictures from that era, please contact us.
Occasionally at the Society’s Library, we come across an item that one of our predecessors put aside as a work-in-progress, usually because identification seemed impossible. The passage of time, of course, makes it even harder to find someone who might recognize an item. On the plus side, we have tools today that can help in ways that were hard to imagine only a few years ago. This advantage was brought home to us recently when we found a set-aside tintype photograph. The subject was apparently a “Yankee Peddler” with his horse-drawn wagon loaded with goods. No one had identified the photo’s time, place, or person.
Luckily, the background of the picture is a storefront with a sign. The picture was obviously printed backwards. (The oddly-shaped edges hint that the tintype’s photographer may have copied an existing photograph.) Scanning and flipping the tintype showed that the storefront’s signs said “J. COSGROVE. W.I. GOODS” and “WHOLE SALE LIQUOR DEALER.” That was not a lot of information to go on, and “W.I. Goods” was an unfamiliar term. After a few false starts, searching for J. Cosgrove on Ancestry.com using “liquor” as a keyword and 1870 Massachusetts as a hypothesized time and place led to an ad in the 1870 Lowell, Massachusetts Directory for J. Cosgrove at 272 Merrimack Street, a wholesale and retail dealer in West-India goods and groceries, as well as wines, liquors, cigars, and ales. It appeared that we had found our photograph’s location.
The alphabetical and grocers’ listings in 1870 revealed that that the proprietor’s name was John. To find the possible time period for our picture, we searched Lowell’s directories back and forward from 1870. (City directories have been digitized by and are available from several online sources; if one source does not have the years needed, it is worth checking for others.) John Cosgrove was listed in the 1849, 1851, and 1853 Lowell Directories as running a boarding house at 208 Merrimack. In the 1855 directory, John Cosgrove started being listed as a grocer at 230 Merrimack (residence at #232). By 1858, Cosgrove was at 270 Merrimack (residence at #272) and finally in 1864, he was at 272 Merrimack (house #274), where his listing stayed through 1874.
The 1870 Census of Lowell's Ward One shows grocer John Cosgrove, age 42, born in Ireland but a citizen of the United States, with $20,000 of real estate and $6,500 in personal goods. Elizabeth Cosgrove, born in Massachusetts, age 20, was keeping house (relationship unspecified). Among others living in the household was John F. Beggs, age 17, no occupation. In 1876, John F. Beggs was operating a grocery at the 272 Merrimack address, advertising himself as the “Successor to John Cosgrove.”
Up to this point, searching was going quite smoothly. All that was left for us to be confident that we had identified the period and place of our tintype was to make sure that John Cosgrove had not opened another grocery in another location. That proved to be the most difficult step. There were plenty of John Cosgroves to trace, but proving whether or not they were the Lowell grocer was not easy. A probate index and a related newspaper article indicated that John of Lowell had probably died in late 1878, but even with that information, searching multiple online indices and going through Lowell death registers did not lead to the right death record. Finally, his death was found recorded in Boston, having taken place at 15 Metropolitan Place on November 16, 1878. Boston City Directories of 1877 and 1878 show that Mrs. John Cosgrove was living at #15 Metropolitan Place. The Boston City Directories of 1875, 1877 and 1878 show no listings for John Cosgrove or his grocery. Indexed Massachusetts directories did not yield an entry for him, either.
Based on our research, we think it fairly safe to say that our picture was taken on Merrimack Street in Lowell (in roughly a city block between #230 and #272, assuming the numbers did not change over the years) in the 1854 - 1874 time period. We have no idea who the peddler was or why the picture ended up in Acton, but we are happy at least to have given the photo some context. Seeing a passing peddler would no doubt have been a familiar experience to people of his time, and the Lowell building probably no longer exists. It is a scene worth preserving.
In the course of trying to confirm the time frame and place of our photograph, we found out more than we had intended about John Cosgrove. If you are a descendant, please contact us; we’ll be happy to share what we found.
Years ago, a framed map of Acton was found in a South Acton home. Recently, when the map was remounted, its backing turned out to be a large, beautifully preserved group portrait (16”x12.5” photo, mounted size 20.5”x18”), taken by Elmer Chickering and Company of Boston. On the back were written three names out of the thirty young men in the picture: A _ Bancroft, H.R. Sewell, and William W. Rawlinson. There was no date or place. Not having any use for it, the owner brought the picture to us.
We started our research with the one full name we had. Investigating William W. Rawlinson led us to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s online yearbook archives. In the 1906 and 1907 yearbooks, (actually produced in the previous years), Delta Tau Delta fraternity included not only William Woodward Rawlinson, but also Albert Fitch Bancroft and Henry Rollo Sewell. It appeared that we had found our group, but we searched the yearbooks for commonalities among the men aside from their fraternity membership. Albert Fitch Bancroft was in the class of 1907, from New Bedford, MA, and studying Course III. William Woodward Rawlinson and Henry Rollo Sewell were from the class of 1908 (respectively, from Lowell, MA studying Course III and from Hastings, Nebraska studying Course II). We did not find any other group in the yearbooks in which all three were members. Given that and the size of the group, (thirty active brothers were listed in the 1906 yearbook and twenty-eight in 1907), it seemed likely that the picture was of the brothers of MIT’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity in 1905 or 1906. Proving it turned out to be a challenge.
Assuming our tentative identification was correct, the next question was how the picture ended up in Acton behind a map. The yearbooks showed that none of the brothers lived in Acton at the time, but it was possible that one of the brothers either had Acton roots or that he settled in Acton later in life and left the photo behind. Armed with perhaps too much enthusiasm, we tracked down the DTD brothers listed in the yearbooks. If it turned out that the portrait was not of Acton people, we hoped we could at least confirm its identification and have enough information to find an appropriate home for it.
The fraternity brothers were surprisingly easy to trace. Because the MIT yearbooks listed students’ middle name, class, and address, we were mostly able to avoid the “common name” problem that plagues genealogists. The timing was also helpful; the brothers were born early enough that many of their births, marriages, and census records are easily available online, but late enough that many were also included in Social Security records. In addition, the brothers happened to be of the age that they had to register for the draft in both World Wars. Many of them joined the Masons, and for those with Massachusetts Masonic ties, cards listing birth, occupation, residence, and often date of death can also be found online. Many were engineers and travelled, causing them to show up in passport applications, consular records, and passenger lists. It is an ideal era in which to be doing genealogical research.
With all of that information available to us, we were optimistic that with a little effort, we could find some connection to Acton. The effort happened, but the hoped-for connection did not. We found DTD brothers involved in industry in Massachusetts and all over the country, in mining ventures in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Peru, and on a Vimy Ridge memorial in Winnipeg. There is no indication that any of them ended up in Acton or even nearby towns.
Back in Acton, we had one more possibility, investigating the people who lived in the house where the framed map was found decades later. That turned out to be surprisingly difficult. At the time the picture was taken, the residents of the house were Henry Waldo and Lizzie (Piper) Tuttle. Their children did not go to MIT. Son Harold Knowlton Tuttle (born 1880) went to Tufts Medical College and eventually settled in California. Daughter Florence Piper Tuttle went to Wellesley and did not marry an MIT graduate. Searching for later residents of the house was no more successful. There were no obvious ties to MIT, and there were simply too many changes in residents over the years to figure out possible connections. Perhaps the picture was simply discarded and someone with no personal interest acquired it for its frame.
Having given up on an Acton connection that would give the picture context, we turned to trying to identify its faces to make sure we had the correct group. As anyone who has tried to identify old pictures knows, the process is difficult and uncertain. In this case, we had started with three names, no date, no location, and nothing to compare the faces to. We were lucky to make the MIT connection. Though the MIT yearbooks of the time did not have individual pictures of graduates or group fraternity photos, there were a few team and club photos. We did find “Rawlinson” identified in a picture of the MIT Mandolin Club in the 1907 yearbook. He appears to be in our picture, the third man from the left in the back row. Other attempts to match faces (including comparing a 1906 portrait of one of the DTD brothers sent by a generous descendant) left us still uncertain. We were about to give up hope on identification when we somewhat accidentally came upon exactly what we needed and had searched for, unsuccessfully, several times.
In trying to find the fraternity bothers’ Acton connection, we had searched for their individual names and for MIT’s Beta Nu Chapter of DTD. We used broad-based and genealogically-focused search engines, looking for text and images. It was hard to imagine that we had missed anything relevant, but we did. It wasn’t until we broadened our search to look into whether Tufts student Howard K. Tuttle (who lived in the “map house”) might have been a DTD brother at Tufts’ Beta Mu Chapter that we came across Delta Tau Delta’s digitized archives of newsletters from the period. It happens that in the June 1907 newsletter, a chapter photo was published of MIT’s Beta Nu chapter, with surnames identified. It was apparently taken later than our photo, as some of the names did not overlap with our lists, but thirteen of them did.
After comparing the photos, we were able to find some faces that look virtually identical and others that are similar enough that they may be of the same men. There remain plenty of questions, but between the names on the back of our picture and the faces that could be identified from the June 1907 newsletter, we are quite confident that our picture was taken of at least some members of MIT’s Beta Nu chapter, most likely in 1906. (One of the matched faces was not in the first yearbook’s DTD listing). The photo may be of the chapter or of a group of attendees at a special event; there were joint fraternal events in Boston during the year, so it is possible that the picture included alumni or brothers from different chapters.
We at the Society work to connect people with their roots and with Acton’s history. In this case, we wanted to find an Acton story that never materialized, but perhaps our research can help others interested in finding out about this group of brothers or their era.
Searching for MIT's Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, Beta Nu Chapter, 1905-1906
If you recognize any of the faces in the group photograph or can share with us an identified picture from around 1906 of one of the brothers listed in the MIT yearbooks, we would be delighted to hear from you. We have done research on and would love to see pictures of the following brothers (in parentheses are the states/countries in which they seem to have had connections at different points in their lives):
We recently came across this picture in our archives. It was definitely not taken in Acton. We have no idea who took the picture, where or when it was taken, or why it is in our collection. The picture is unlabeled.
What is the horse pulling? Our guess is that it was a street-sweeping apparatus. It is hard to see, but there may be brushes underneath, behind the wheel. Can anyone confirm that? Has anyone seen a rig like this? Please contact us if you have any information that would help to identify the machine or the time and/or place in which the picture was taken.
Many professional photographers are represented in the collections of the Society, but Acton photographers were a rarity. The Society was lucky to receive a 2015 donation of a photograph whose mat was imprinted with “F. J. TAYLOR, PHOTOGRAPHER, SOUTH ACTON, MASS.” The picture is unlabeled; so far no one has identified the picture’s subjects, place, or date.
One of the techniques used to date a photograph is to research the years in which its photographer was in business. That sounds easy, but in practice, information about photographers can be scarce, particularly if they did not become well-established in an area or leave behind a substantial body of work. An excellent place to start is Chris Steele & Ronald Polito’s book A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900 (Picton Press, 1993). Using as their source the New England Business Directory, they list an F.J. Taylor working in Acton in 1896. They also list Forester J. Taylor in Cambridge in the 1882-1888 period doing business early as Rand & Taylor and then as Forester J. Taylor & Company. Researching Cambridge directories confirmed that Forester J. Taylor showed up by 1882 (living in Somerville and working in Cambridge) and then lived and worked in Cambridge for the rest of the 1880s. Research in vital and census records established that the Acton and Cambridge F. J. Taylors were the same person.
F. J. Taylor - The Early Years
Forester J. Taylor, living at School Street in South Acton, was naturalized in Boston on March 27, 1899. (The Naturalization Index lists his birthplace as Montreal and his birth date as May 20, 1854.) In the 1900 Census, Forester Taylor, photographer, age 45, was living in Acton with his wife Margaret, sons Frederick M. and F. Forrester, daughter Eliza A., and mother-in-law Mary Dorsey. Tracing Forester’s ancestry back to Quebec yielded a Church of England baptismal record for Forester Joseph Taylor, son of Stephen Matthew Taylor of Melbourne township and Ann Morgan. (The birth date given was May 21, 1853.) Melbourne is now part of Richmond, Quebec in the area formerly known as the Eastern Townships. The family, including Forester, was in Melbourne in the 1861 Census of Canada. The father Stephen died that year. Widow Ann Taylor married William Crook in November 1862. Forester was listed in the 1871 Melbourne census with William and Ann Crook.
Cambridge (Mass.) vital records show that on November 28, 1885, Forester J. Taylor (photographer, age 31, living in Cambridge, born in Montreal to Stephen M. and Ann) was married to Margaret F. Dorsey (age 19, living in Barre, born in Ireland to Thomas and Mary). On May 25, 1887, their son Frederick M(atthew) was born in Cambridge. Their son Friend Forester Taylor stated in World War I military documents that he was born on June 10, 1891 in either Cambridge or Somerville, Mass. (His parents were specified as Forester Joseph Taylor and Margaret T. Dorsey.) For some reason, searching individual birth records for June 1891 in both Somerville and Cambridge and the state-wide index for 1891-1895 yielded no record of his birth. Acton Vital Records include daughter Eliza Ann Taylor, born on June 23, 1894 to Acton residents Forester J. (photographer, born Montreal) and Margaret “Darcey” (born Ireland).
Extensive searching of local newspapers yielded no advertisements for Forester J. Taylor’s photography business in Cambridge in the 1880s or around Acton in the 1890s. However, South Acton news items in the Concord Enterprise shared the fact that “Mr. Taylor, the photographer” had bought a house from Mrs. Bulette on Stow Street [March 23, 1893] and then moved in [April 20, 1893]. After Eliza Ann’s 1894 birth, Acton town documents yielded no information about Forester J. Taylor and his family. He was not listed in the Assessor’s List for Acton in 1900; according to the census, the family was renting at that point, and Forester had been out of work four months of the year. (Acton records do show that Forester’s wife Margaret’s mother Mary Dorsey passed away in Acton in February 1901, and Margaret’s sister Bridget (Dorsey) Callan lived in Acton with her husband Patrick Callan until her death in 1926.)
Another Acton Photographer
A surprise came from searching newspaper articles for Forester - the discovery of a new Acton photographer. Between December 1895 and February 1896, ads appeared in the Concord Enterprise for Mrs. F. J. Taylor, South Acton Photographer, offering pictures of ladies’ boudoirs, parlors, babies (in environments they were accustomed to), pets, anniversary gifts, costumes, and evening parties, with “flash lights” a specialty. A November 21, 1895 South Acton news item mentioned that Mrs. F. J. Taylor had photographed the guests of Mrs. M.E. Lothrop’s 75th birthday party. On December 5, 1895 the Enterprise reported that "Mrs. Taylor" had photographed the Abram Jones family at their Thanksgiving gathering. So far, no other mention of or picture from Mrs. F. J. Taylor’s photography business has been found, but we will be on the lookout.
Life After Acton
Forester’s and Margaret’s time in Acton was short. A 1902 Acton directory shows no Forester or F.J. Taylor listed as a resident or as a photographer in the business section. It appears that anyone wanting to date a photograph imprinted with “F.J Taylor, South Acton, Mass.” can assign it a date of approximately 1893-1901. (As a caveat, if cardboard mats were left over after F.J. moved away from the area, 1901 may be too early a cutoff.)
Research into the later life of the family shows that after leaving Acton, Forester moved frequently. He appears as a photographer in the Norwalk, Connecticut directory of 1903 and the Northampton, Mass. directory of 1906. The 1907 Northampton directory simply states that he moved to Hartford. In the Hartford, Connecticut directories of 1908 and 1910, he is no longer listed as a photographer but is listed as residing at 100 Ann. In 1908 and 1910, sons Frederick M. and Friend F. are both listed as salesmen living in the same residence as their father. In 1910, Mrs. Margaret is also listed in the directory at 100 Ann, with rooms to rent.
An obituary in the Concord Enterprise (June 15, 1910, page 6) says that “Forester Taylor, the travelling photographer, who at one time resided in Cole’s block, died at his late home in Hartford, Conn., last month." The Hartford Courant published an obituary (May 23, 1910, page 11) that focused on his early years; his apprenticeship in Vermont, a few years in the photography business in his hometown of Melbourne, Quebec, a brief sojourn to the Midwest, two years working for Sprague & Hathaway in Somerville, Mass, and then his development of “the traveling commercial view business.” The obituary implied that he had a large-scale enterprise and had trained many photographers. Unfortunately, despite much searching, it was hard to find much documentation of Forrest J. Taylor’s business life or his “prominent place” in American photographic history. Fortunately, some of his photographs survive. In addition to the 2015 donation, the Society also has two pictures taken in Acton by F.J. Taylor of Cambridge (who we now know definitely is the South Acton photographer) and a copy of a third photo bearing his South Acton imprint.
If you have any other information about Mr. and Mrs. F. J. Taylor and their photography or more information about the F.J. Taylor pictures in our collection, please contact us.
One of our mysteries is the origin of a set of two miniature photo albums in the Society’s collection. Bound in red leather with a gold design stamped on the outside, they measure approximately 1.5”x1.5”. Inside are pages with oval cut-outs for “gem-size” portraits. Some of the pages have detached from the binding, and it appears that some of the photographs may have fallen out. One album’s flyleaf has the initials “MS.” The other has “25” written on it. The title page of the “25” album says “Simmons and Co. New Bedford.” Online searching, so far, has been unsuccessful in dating Simmons and Co.
The photographs themselves are tintypes. (The back of one is exposed and is magnetic.) Online research revealed that these gem-sized photographs were easily obtainable after about 1863. The pictures were printed in multiples and then cut apart. They were affordable for people who were not well-to-do.
Our albums have at least one duplicate picture. Perhaps they belonged to siblings. Aside from the style of dress, the initials “MS”, and the fact that the albums seem to have been manufactured in New Bedford, the only identification clues are that two of the children’s first names were labeled – one is (perhaps, the writing is difficult) “Lucie” and the other is Sarah. We will be showcasing the portraits in these albums in our Unidentified Pictures pages, hoping to learn more over time. If you can help us with dating or identifying the pictures, please contact us.
The beginning: Agatha Freeman Royall – What is she doing here?
The Turners - Georgia to Acton with a Few Detours
One of the projects that Society members have been working on is photographing gravestones in Acton’s cemeteries. Usually, the process of identifying people on the gravestones is straightforward, but sometimes information is scarce. In the case of a cube-shaped marker that said on different sides “Davis,” “Baby,” and “Harriet Turner “ and “John Turner,” more information was needed. Researching Estelle (Turner) Davis’s family for connections to Agatha (Freeman) Royall turned up Harriet Turner and an unexpected story.
Harriet M. Turner, like her sister Estelle (Turner) Davis, was born in Columbus, Georgia. Her death record in Acton showed that she had been a singer and had died in 1939 at age 72. Based on a hypothesis that she might have met Agatha Royall through her singing, online newspapers were searched for any mention of her career. A brief notice of Harriet's death in the Acton Concord Enterprise (March 8, 1939, page 5) said that she had entertained at the White House and for royalty in England and Italy. That surprise opened up many research possibilities. Finally, an article in the Washington Times (June 9, 1922, page 6) gave her life story under the headline “Once Famous Singer is Now Jobless Cook.” According to the article, Harriet and her sister Alice came north to New York with little other than their banjos and their voices. Somehow, sending a letter to complete stranger William Randolph Hearst opened doors for them, and before long, they were performing their “Southern” repertoire for wealthy and well-connected people in the United States and abroad. They performed in London at a party of the Queen that led to more Society appearances in England, and they performed at the White House twice. They toured the continent, making four trips to Europe in all. They sang for dukes, at least one ambassador, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt. In Harriet’s words, “People most socially prominent begged us to sing and play for them. American millionaires sought to buy our entertainment, but we insisted upon being the most exclusive, for that, you see, paid best. We went only to the homes of royalty, nobility, or distinction…we sang and played our merry way along, and we saved never a penny.”
Then Harriet evidently became ill, and bills piled up. Her hair turned white, and she was no longer an in-demand, young, Southern woman with a sweet voice and a banjo. Life went downhill. A 1919 Boston Post article (August 8, page 11) revealed that “Miss Harriet Turner... an accomplished musician and vocalist – having entertained Presidents of the United States and Kings and Queens of several European countries – was found sitting in a dazed condition, her clothing drenched with rain, under a tree on the grounds of Boston College…” She was apparently incoherent, suffering from “aphasia.” By the time of the 1922 Washington Times article, she had recovered enough to be working as a cook, though no job seems to have lasted long; the latest mentioned was at the Fort Pond Inn in Ayer (research indicates it may actually have been in Lancaster), working for a woman who had once been her servant.
Meanwhile, according to the 1922 article whose source seems to have been Harriet, her sister “Alice” married, “but the man she loved had little money.” Researching Alice Turner yielded no results until an article in the October 15, 1916 Boston Sunday Globe (page 48) revealed that Harriet’s elusive singing partner Alice was actually her sister Estelle Bushnell Turner. The two sisters had evidently been in the North for 12 years, mostly based in Boston, entertaining notable people with songs taken from the South. Estelle was about to marry; the relatively money-less husband that Harriet described was Acton’s own Charles Edmund Davis whom Estelle met in 1915 while trying to buy a summer cottage.
Estelle’s listings in the 1930 and 1940 censuses with her husband and mother-in-law show no occupation and no children. Evidently, her sister Harriet came to live with them during her final years, although she died in a Rest Home in Concord. Estelle T. Davis appeared occasionally in local newspaper articles in connection with land ownership and because of an automobile accident in 1943. Her 1961 obituary makes no mention of her singing career; she was described as the widow of well-known realtor Charles Davis. She had been sick for a long period of time.
None of this story would have come to light if a portrait of a woman with no apparent connection to Acton had not appeared at the Historical Society. We still don’t know how the picture got here, but the chances are that the singing Turners somehow met Agatha (Freeman) Royall in their performing period. Perhaps their songs reminded Mr. Royall of his Georgia roots.
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