Sarah Bennett photograph courtesy of John Trzaskos
Exorcizing the “Witch of the Adirondacks”
This article was abridged for publication; read the full version, entitled “Bewildered,” at www.adirondacklife.com.
The tanneries were dead and the sawmills were dying. Lumberjacks were more often spotted at sportsmen’s shows than in the woods. The population had plummeted from nearly 800 residents at its apogee in 1850 to fewer than 300 in 1910, losing almost half its population in the first decade of the new century alone. If not for the women of Hope finding piecework in the local glove industry, it is doubtful the town would have survived at all. Against this bleak backdrop unfolded the story of Sarah Bennett, a woman deprived of her liberty in the absence of evidence, advocate, hearing or anything resembling due process for acts tantamount to witchcraft, allegedly perpetrated against her own family on a dirt-poor farm in the foothills of the Adirondack wilderness.
The story—I will not yet invoke “the facts,” for those inconveniences are another matter entirely—runs thus: Sarah and John Bennett lived on a 96-acre farm in the town of Hope at the turn of the century. They had five children: eldest son Fayette, who left the farm as a young man; daughter Maggie, who died as a teenager; and younger boys George, John Ward (known as Ward) and Frank. In 1911, Sarah was accused of what laypeople today call Munchausen by proxy, a form of abuse in which a caregiver convinces a vulnerable charge that he or she is sick, and sometimes makes it so by poison or other nefarious means. There was never any suggestion of physical assault in the Bennett case. Sarah was said rather to have stricken her younger sons by mere persuasion, convincing them to lay abed for over a decade when in fact all three were in rude health.
So far, so plausible, except the Bennett brothers were neither vulnerable nor boys. They had grown, as far as anyone in the neighborhood could recall, into strapping farm lads, and were in their 20s and 30s by the time their malady—or Sarah’s—came to light. The discovery was purportedly prompted by the rerouting of the Northville-Wells highway (today Route 30) through the Bennett property, an indignity visited upon several Hope Valley homesteads when modernity encroached upon the wilderness in the form of a macadam road connecting rural Hope to urban Fulton County to the south. The construction passed within a stone’s throw of the Bennett farmstead, casting an unwelcome spotlight on a reclusive family already rumored to be troubled. Matters came to a head in 1914, when Sarah was involuntarily examined by two Northville doctors, and on the basis of their testimony, committed to the Utica State Hospital. There she remained 17 years until her death, when her body was returned home at last and planted in the same ground as her daughter.
It was the nearby Gloversville Leader that laid claim to breaking the Bennett story on September 1, 1911. By the time the Leader caught wind of the affair, it was already winging its way to national headlines courtesy of urban journalists vacationing in the vicinity. The newswire carried it even further. “Mother Kept Her Grown Sons in Bed Many Years,” ran The Tennessean Sun on September 3. “Hypnotized Sons Seek to Escape Mother’s ‘Spell,’” claimed The World of New York the following day. “The Three Bennett Boys Are All Sound Physically, Says Gloversville Doctor,” noted the Glens Falls Daily Times on the 5th, followed by “The Humane Society To Intervene” on the 6th.
The story would bring not only notoriety, but newsmen to Hope in search of an angle. “After an arduous trip of fifty miles by automobile, boat and on foot … your correspondent to-day investigated the unprecedented example of the power of mesmeric suggestion revealed in the case of Sarah Bennett and her three sons,” began The World reporter. He claimed to have gained entry to the farmstead and spoken with the family, as well as neighbors and local physicians. The tale became more fanciful as the writer gained steam: “A farmer who has occasion to pass the Bennett home at night tells of nightly outbursts of unbridled anger in the Bennett home. Often, he added, Mrs. Bennett sit[s] over a boiling pot the contents of which she says are a charm, muttering strange incantations. Her secret potion, she says, will cure the ‘malady of devil possession,’ but no one has been able to construe what the term means. Others tell of strange happenings at midnight within the quaintly designed cottage on the mountain.”
The stories dragged on for several years, adding ever more preposterous details as they went, and by 1914 the “Witch of the
Adirondacks” had been born. Another intrepid first-person account attributed to journalist Edward Henry Smith, who claimed to have traveled to Hope to interview the remaining Bennetts after Sarah’s arrest, elevated the witchcraft narrative to hitherto unscaled rhetorical heights. Its accompanying illustration depicted Sarah as a hooded wraith artfully manipulating marionette strings stretching from her prison to the distant cabin in Hope, where her sons lay still in bed while husband, John, and their fierce dogs guard the cabin outside. The story itself was hardly more sober. After lurking about the Bennett farmstead and peering through the windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of the invalids, Smith claimed to have been confronted by John, who set his dogs upon him before grabbing his rifle and accusing Smith and his ilk of driving Sarah mad.
“You did it, you and your damned newspapers…. You ought to all be shot! Every one of you!”
Further details follow, many of which were echoed, elaborated on and muddled by other papers, including The New York Sun, The Syracuse Journal, The Boston Globe, The Washington Herald and The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana. The household was a violent one, with John beating Sarah (or Sarah beating John, or both beating each other). One of the brothers managed to pass a letter requesting help to a local minister (or the Humane Society, or a friend). The letter was written by George (or Ward) and later recanted (or disavowed). Their sister Maggie had died years earlier from a similar confinement (or consumption, or both). Sarah could silence any of the male members of the household with a mere glance and controlled her family by means of hypnosis (or sorcery, or witchcraft). Sarah haunted the roads by night, looking for people and places that had long since disappeared. Sarah stood guard at the cabin door, fending off doctors, ministers and other callers with a shotgun. Multiple physicians got past her to examine the brothers and found them to be sound in body but weak in mind and vulnerable to their mother’s iron will.
“All this,” wrote Smith, “is only the gossip and talk of the neighborhood, but it is told and retold by every tongue, so that it assumes the verisimilitude of fact.”
Dozens of articles on the Bennetts were published between 1911 and 1919, when the Gloversville Leader, by this time operating as the Leader Republican, revived the tale in the wake of a mission from a Broadalbin church to provide aid to the ailing family, still struggling to recover its strength five years after the extraction of the alleged poison. Most are so riddled with preposterous claims and maddening contradictions that it is difficult to accord them any credence at all. Yet there are sufficient corroborating details to make the gist of the press coverage at least conceivable. The World, for example, claimed to have spoken to a “Danforth Conklin,” Sarah’s brother, who confirmed that she kept the boys in bed. Sarah did have a brother (Danford rather than Danforth) living in Hope at the 1920 census, who may well have had a farm nearby when the reporter visited the town in 1911. The census, too, supported the allegation that the boys were once robust but later fell ill, describing them through the years of affliction as “at home,” “sick several years” or “invalids” after earlier years listed as “at school” or “laborers.” Beyond this, there is little evidence to lend these reports any more credibility than may be invested in alien abductions or Elvis sightings in the tabloids of our own day, despite the respectability of the publications in which they appeared.
Much of the real story died along with its eyewitnesses: John Bennett in 1921, Frank Bennett in 1929, Sarah Bennett in 1931, George Bennett in 1946. Beyond the episodic revival in the local press with the successive obituaries of the principal players, the story went largely silent after 1919, receding from the national consciousness to a curious footnote in the history of a sleepy Adirondack town.
But like Hope itself, the Witch of the Adirondacks proved unwilling to die. Thirty years after her death, Sarah’s tragedy was resurrected by the first Hamilton County historian, Stella King, and her successor, Ted Aber, for two co-authored books: Tales from an Adirondack County (1961) and The History of Hamilton County (1965). Their version varied little from the newspaper reports with one exception. By the 1960s, the historians were disinclined to invoke witchcraft, but they added a sorrowful twist to the tale. Sarah’s madness, in their account, derived from her inconsolable grief over the untimely death of her only daughter, Maggie, heartbreak compelling her to wrap her remaining children in cotton wool, safe from the evils of an uncertain world.
After the story lay dormant for another 45 years, the Bennetts were again resuscitated in 2010 by Fulton County historian Peter Betz, who recounted the story in the successor to the newspaper that first broke it, the Gloversville Leader Herald. Betz was likely the first to christen the Bennett nightmare a case of Munchausen by proxy, though his primary interest lay rather with the 1919 Broadalbin mission of mercy to the post-proxy farmstead. Lest Sarah finally be allowed to rest in peace, just last year, more than half a century after the Aber and King retelling and a hundred years since the events themselves, Lawrence Gooley excavated the entire sordid affair for a three-part Halloween blog on the Adirondack Almanack. This in turn became the basis for an episode of a podcast entitled “Strange Country.”
“Strange” is indeed the unanimous verdict of all of Sarah’s latter-day biographers. But perhaps the most conspicuous feature of these faithful recitations is their credulous nature. Notwithstanding the passage of a century, Sarah’s tale has scarcely been questioned since it first emerged in 1911. And little wonder. Despite the alleged involvement of multiple officials, from the superintendent of the poor in Hamilton County to the Humane Society in Fulton County, neither county, nor their relevant municipalities or institutions, retains any record of the case. Sarah’s chroniclers have been compelled to cultivate their stories in a field rich in editorial invention but poor in verifiable facts.
The legend came to my own attention when I was appointed Hamilton County historian in 2015. I was skeptical from the outset. For farm families, children are more than offspring. They are labor. Why would a poor farm woman deliberately disable her three productive sons with nothing to gain save a rod for her own back? Far from relishing the notoriety, the Bennetts chafed at the attention their plight generated. Why would a family keen to avoid the scrutiny of local authorities concoct an elaborate fiction sure to attract it? But with little reason to believe there was any surviving evidence to refute the fable, and having many other duties in my new job, I let the matter lie. Until about a year later, when I discovered in my office a wholly unique account of the Bennett story: a letter from Sarah’s granddaughter Jean Trzaskos, calling the Aber and King version—and by extension, all the others—“pure shit.” Jean was the daughter of Ward Bennett, who eventually married, moved to Northville, became a barber, and led a conventional existence belying his leading role in a nationally broadcast backwoods drama until his death in 1971. The letter is dated November 13, 1965, and is addressed to Ted Aber, who by then had succeeded King as the Hamilton County historian.
“My maiden name was Bennett—Jean Helen Bennett. I am the grand-daughter of John and Sarah Bennett of whom you wrote in ‘Tales of an Adirondack County.’ Mr. Aber, I was heartbroken when I read the ‘Twenty Years in Bed’ segment. As in many cases heartbreak will give vent to anger as was in my case for I was furious and it has tormented me for four (4) years. The half-truths, outright lies and innuendos leave no words … you and Mrs. King couldn’t have gotten your information on my family from bigger liars in Hamilton County.”
Jean spelled out her refutation of the stock narrative in 18 handwritten pages. In its place, she painted a portrait of a once-functioning rural farm struck down by more than its share of tragedy, commencing when 16-year-old Maggie died—of tuberculosis, not confinement. The Bennett brothers, she informed Aber, “were not ill because their mother convinced them of such.” They were just plain ill: Ward of a heart ailment, George with diphtheria and Frank with multiple strokes as well as the same heart problem that afflicted Ward, all made eventually worse by blasting from the nearby roadworks. Sarah, her granddaughter claimed, was the victim of persecution rather than its perpetrator, her deteriorating mental state exacerbated by the relentless hounding of gossiping neighbors and the intrusive press.
What Aber made of this furious challenge to his (and King’s) authority, we may never know. Jean’s missive reached him too late for inclusion in The History, and the Bennetts do not seem to have made an appearance in any of Aber’s subsequent work, which included multiple newspaper columns as well as his third book, Adirondack Folks, published in 1980. But Aber and King were not to have the last word in any event. If Ted Aber forgot the episode, Jean Trzaskos did not. She pursued her family history with gusto, gathering information not only from her father, Ward, but her cousin Blanche, a daughter of Fayette Bennett who had spent time at the farmstead while her grandparents were still alive. She wrote narratives, timelines and even verse about the farm.
She eventually passed this treasure trove to her son, John Trzaskos, who preserved it in his own turn. The Bennett archive makes for remarkable reading. In addition to debunking the claim that Sarah abused her own family, Jean documented details left untold by the press. Her grandmother, she maintained, “sewed gloves for 49 years of her life; from age of 15 to 64,” a plausible claim for a woman of Hope and a likely explanation for how the farm survived without the aid of her stricken sons, and why it required charity from a church after her departure. Her grandfather, she recalled, was equally diligent, working as a farmer, a logger and a caretaker for a seasonal family, in addition to serving as a Hope school trustee and a patriot who mustered early and saw action in some of the most brutal battles of the Civil War. Ward Bennett became a devout Christian later in life, and wrote a widely sung hymn called “Accept Salvation by His Grace.” George assumed the caretaking business after the death of his father, and the families exchanged personal news and pleasantries in their correspondence. The Bennett brothers made fast friends with many of the travelers who passed through Hope, and maintained similar exchanges with them when they returned to their distant urban homes. Nothing about this collection evinces the archive of a witch—or the bewitched. But it does bespeak a family struggling to cope with the mental decline of one of its own, its effect upon others in the household, its stigma in the wider community, and the grist made of it in the rumor mill of the press.
While Jean sought to recuperate her family’s reputation, she did not view her ancestors through rose-colored glasses. Her grandmother, she contended, though beset by burdens, was indeed mentally ill. For all Jean’s exasperation with Ted Aber, they agreed on one key point: the death of her daughter sent Sarah over the edge. “Grandma was only forty-one then, but what it did to her, the Lord only knows. From eighteen ninety-one forward, she went down hill and from bad to worse.”
Sarah’s diagnosis will remain unknown, for her medical records are sealed by law, even to direct descendants. Jean offers no conjecture, but refers only to an unnamed malady that was “no fault of her own,” magnified by long decades of poverty, grief and the interminable labor of caring for chronically sick men. She confirms reports that Sarah suffered episodes of both disoriented wandering and inexplicable rage. She notes that her grandmother’s ailments were physical as well as psychological, revealing that she became more and more debilitated after a difficult menopause, following a lifetime of painful menstrual cycles that left her “forced to bed nearly bleeding to death” every month, with little relief to be had from the doctors of the day.
She speculates that Sarah, who married at the age of 19, may have fared better with a female confidant in the house, a comfort of which she was robbed with the loss of Maggie.
Yet Jean insists Sarah’s breakdown did not result in the confinement of her children, and there is more in the archive beyond the word of Jean Trzaskos to support this contention.
One set of documents speaks louder than others: sworn affidavits by two local physicians, John Hagar and George Peters, from July 1911, a few months before the Bennett saga hit the national dailies. In them, both doctors declare that Ward, George and Frank Bennett were extremely sick men who could neither be moved nor exposed to any undue “noise or excitement.” The depositions were likely taken in support of the Bennett family’s protest against the county’s bid to ram the new highway straight through their farm via eminent domain—a battle the Bennetts, along with several other hapless families in the path of progress, ultimately lost. There is further confirmation of this diagnosis in a statement from Hagar dated September 8, 1911, clearly written in response to a letter from John Bennett accusing the good doctor of saying one thing under oath and quite another to the papers: “I will stand on the affidavit I made regarding the condition of your sons as I beleive [sic] it to be true or I should not have sworn it. I have had no talks with any one regarding the case, there has [sic] been several reporters here but I have refused to talk upon the matter.”
No similar reassurance is evident from George Peters, who made headlines that year for insisting that the ailments of the Bennett brothers were psychosomatic rather than physiological, and blaming Sarah for their delusions. Three years later, Hagar too was listed among a number of physicians who deemed the boys “able-bodied” and capable of leaving their beds. Whether the two physicians lied under oath, lied to the newspapers, or were brazenly misquoted remains one of the great mysteries of the Bennett story. As does the role—or at least the motive—of John Bennett in his wife’s incarceration.
In May of 1914, the Leader Republican reported that Dr. Edward Grant, of Northville, obtained John’s consent to examine his wife. His prognosis, and the concurrence of his colleague Dr. Anson Avery, convinced a judge to commit Sarah shortly thereafter. Jean’s letter to Ted Aber lends credence to reports that John Bennett was complicit in Sarah’s incarceration, calling it “the hardest duty he’d ever done or would ever do.”
In Jean’s estimation, John acted out of compassion and desperation, but it may well have seemed otherwise to Sarah, who had anticipated some impending betrayal. The Bennett archive contains a handwritten note dated September 30, 1913, seven months before her committal, barring her husband from representing her: “Mr John Bennett, I hereby forbid you from acting as my agent or handling any property of mine whatsoever or using my signature on any paper or in any business way whatever, if you do, I will take proper measures to prevent you from so doing. Sarah Bennett.” It was Sarah’s last known statement.
An enormous power pervades the authority to decide who is sane and who is otherwise. For much of western history, that authority has resided with men. Whether John indeed requested Sarah’s committal, or even had good reason for doing so, is immaterial. His ownership of her person was a social fact. The consent to examine Sarah was his to give, not hers to withhold. However many men ultimately pronounced Sarah’s fate, Sarah herself had no say at all, and herein lies the true tragedy of Sarah Bennett.
It was one all too familiar to the Sarahs of her time. Sarah’s story transpired during a decade in which women on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to kick off the chains of patriarchy. Disdain for such efforts glowered from the front page of the Binghamton Press & Leader in 1914, in a dispatch from London that ran alongside a celebration of Sarah Bennett’s imprisonment. “‘Witch of the Adirondacks’ Is at Last Committed To Insane Asylum” ran the first headline. “Wild Women Wage ‘Orgy of Outrage,’” ran the second. Their crime? Demanding the right to vote. Sarah’s era was the age of suffrage, the backlash against which bristled with spluttering indignation at the subversion of male authority. The articles seem strangely at home on the same page, one presaging a new and modern epoch of female power even as a more ancient and inexplicable one was locked away forever.
Locked away, too, is the full story of what happened in the Bennett household all those years ago. It is my belief that the sorcery at work in Hope was not that of Sarah Bennett, but of those who subverted her right to self-determination with a witch-hunt of Salemic proportions. It is we, not the Bennett brothers, who were bewitched, seduced by the patriarchal logic that a formidable woman must be deranged, and the deranged deserve no sovereignty. I do not believe Sarah Bennett imprisoned her sons. I doubt her mental illness amounted to insanity. I am wary of reducing her anger to madness, a weapon wielded all too often to silence women’s justifiable rage at their menial rank. I do believe justice failed when two doctors, a judge and her own husband signed away her freedom.
But belief—mindful of a long and ignominious tradition consigning seditious women to the backwoods of bedlam—is all I can really claim. I can no more prove that Jean Trzaskos was right than I can prove that Ted Aber was wrong, though I can, at least and at last, restore to the former the voice she deserved all along. History has become our wilderness, a shadowy land of unfamiliar expanses through which we stumble, arms outstretched toward the voices from the past that cry out for justice. It’s enough to drive a historian mad.
Eliza Jane Darling, historian for the town of Hope and Hamilton County, would like to thank John Trzaskos for his generosity in making the Bennett family archive available.