21 March, 2017

Olive Baxter and Her Heartbreaking Tragedy

One of the reasons I love genealogy so much is the tendency to come across so many little stories, and snippets of stories, about individuals in times past. It is these that make the history of a family or a town truly come to life.

Recently I have been perusing the archives of the Barnstable Patriot newspaper, which is searchable on the website of the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, MA. The searchable years include 1830 to 1930. My family was living in every town that this paper covered during those years, so I've been having a field day reading articles that mention them. What a wonderful resource!

I came across a very sad story that I'd not heard about before which took place in mid-19th century West Dennis, MA. I discovered that the main character in this sorry tale was the sister-in-law of my gr-gr-grandmother, Paulina Baxter.

Paulina's brother, Elijah Howes Baxter (b 1825), was a sailor. He married, in 1847, Olive Baker Crowell (b 1828 and also related to me via the Crowell line). The following year the couple had a child whom they named Mary Howes Baxter. In July of 1853 they had a second daughter, Olivia Howes Baxter.

About five months later, in December of 1853, Elijah was lost at sea in a storm. Apparently, Olive remained in the Baxter home with her two daughters, as she is listed as head of household in the next census with her daughters, ages 2 and 7.

West Dennis, MA

No doubt Mrs. Baxter was distraught at the loss of her young husband. No doubt she struggled to continue on with the task of raising two small girls. We cannot know how her husband's death affected her over the ensuing years, but somehow something went terribly wrong.

As the story in the newspaper relates, the local pastor was aroused one afternoon in February of 1858 by a neighbor of Olive Baxter's and urged to come quickly to the Baxter home. Once there, the terrible truth was immediately apparent. Little 4-year-old Olivia Baxter lay dead. Incredibly, the child had been strangled to death with a scarf - by her own mother.

The newspaper said "No question but that the act was the result of insanity. No mother loved her children better than Mrs. Baxter."

I have not found how this crime was adjudicated, but I suspect that Olive was found incompetent or not guilty by reason of insanity. She is found in subsequent census reports listed as "servant" living with the Kelley family, then living with her brother and sister-in-law. Finally, her obituary indicates that she died at the home of her elder daughter, Mary, in New Bedford. No mention is made of the murder in the obituary. She was 80 years old at her death.

(photo D J Pimentel/
Perhaps Olive Baxter lapsed into depression when her husband drowned, only to have her condition worsen over the next few years, culminating in some sort of psychotic break in 1858 when she murdered her child. Little was understood about mental illness in those days, of course, and if friends and neighbors had noticed anything amiss, they would have had no idea what to do to help her.

Such horrific events happened then as they do now. But somehow, reading of this tragedy that occurred in the small village of West Dennis one hundred and fifty-nine years ago brings all of its citizens into a new perspective. They must have struggled with the enormity of the event as a community, and perhaps treated Mrs Baxter with care and pity for the affliction that had caused her to commit such a terrible act.

Mary Baxter, the elder daughter of Olive Baxter who was nearly 10 when her sister was murdered, married Eugene Perry in 1873. She named her daughter Olivia May Perry.