So being a history geek (more like a history addict really) I love to simply dig through old records. The things you find can be truly fascinating as well as downright hysterical!
I was recently looking through some vital records for Cheshire, Connecticut, my hometown. Now mind you Cheshire today is a “bedroom community”, a suburban town smack in between Hartford and New Haven. But 100 years ago, when my grandmother was growing up, it was a small farm town. According to the 1910 Federal Census the population when she was a child was 1,988 (the 2010 Census puts the population at 28, 543).
Going back further – to say 1870, the population was a little higher – 2,344 people. Most of those 2,344 people were farmers, but there some were employed in manufacturing, like at the Cheshire Button Company (aka Ball & Socket Company), and there were lots of merchants, but overall it was a farming community. There were lots of orchards too, which meant lots of brandy stills, but thats a post for another day.
So one day when looking though some vital records from 1869, a particular death record caught my eye. There, in Volume 2 of the Cheshire Birth, Marriage and Death Records was a death record for Adeline Cook, prostitute.
Prostitute? In 1869 Cheshire? I did a double take, thinking I had misread it, but no, her occupation was that of prostitute. The record listed her name as Adeline Cook (Cook was a very prevalent and well known surname in Cheshire in those days), aged 23. Her birthplace was listed as New Durham, New York and her residence Cheshire. She died on August 9, 1869 of syphilis.
Intrigued I looked for more information. As she had died in August 1869 she should be in the 1870 Federal Mortality Schedule. The Mortality Schedule sought to enumerate anyone who had died the year preceding the Federal Census. Generally it will list the name, age at last birthday, sex, race, marital status, profession, birthplace, birthplace of person and/or parents, month in which person died and cause of death. They are a great resource, unfortunately this was only done 1850-1880 and in some places in 1885.
So a check of the 1870 Schedule shows no Adeline, but there was a Sarah (no surname). The name listed above Sarah is William Cook, age 24, but there are no ditto marks under the surname so she may or may not have been a Cook. Hmmm, could he be any relation? Maybe the the inference is that Sarah, like William is a Cook. Sarah is listed as being 22 at death and her birthplace is listed as Connecticut. No occupation is listed but there are faint ditto marks in the Cause of Death column, indicating Typhoid Fever as the cause. Chances are this was Adeline, maybe her real name was Sarah?
The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that this had to be Adeline Cook. Maybe the town clerk (or whoever provided the census taker with the list of deaths) chose to “sanitize” her death, maybe he was trying to protect her and her family’s reputation – or maybe he was protecting the town’s reputation. People lie about causes of death all the time- in those days “Died suddenly” was a euphemism for “Committed suicide”.
So were Sarah and Adeline the same person? I was compelled to dig a little further. I looked at the 1850 Federal Census for New York, because if she was born 1847-1848 in New Durham, NY, she would likely still be there in 1850. And there she was, A. Sarah Cook, age 2, living with her parents, Alfred and Electa Cook and her brothers, William H. and Charles A. So maybe her name was Adeline Sarah Cook.
A few states, like New York conducted a statewide census in 1855. Hopefully, I thought, I could find the Cook’s, but it was not to be. I moved on to 1860, where I searched for Adeline, and lo and behold, they were back in Cheshire. There they were, Alfred & Electa, children W.H (ae14), Adeline S. (ae12), Charles (ae11), Mary J. (ae4) and boarder Wm. Smith (ae20). So our Adeline cook was indeed Adeline Sarah Cook.
A quick check of Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and Early American Newspapers show no trace of Adeline. I was able to dig a bit more on her father Alfred. He was born in Cheshire on August 17, 1805 to Aaron and Betsey (Preston) Cook. Alfred was the great grandson of Capt. Samuel Cook, an early and influential settler in Wallingford/Cheshire.
At some point, Alfred went west to Durham, New York. When exactly, I can’t say. Census records before 1850 can be a little tough to work with. Information was pretty sparse. The name of the Head of Household was listed along with the number of free white males & females, free colored males & females & slaves. These were broken down into various age groupings based on the census year.
There were a number of Alfred Cooks floating around, but I couldn’t definitively say “this one” is the Alfred I am looking for. There is a chance he wasn’t yet married, he would’ve been 35 in 1840 and his oldest known child, William H., wasn’t yet born. And if he wasn’t married, he could be living with any number of people and his existence would be as a “1” in the free white male between 30-39 column. Tracing Alfred through census records alone would not help.
A bit of research on Durham, New York informed me that a large part of the population was made up of people from Cheshire, Connecticut. Cheshire folks apparently had an abundance of the pioneer spirit. The town of Burton, Ohio was formed by Cheshire natives too. The names of the founding fathers are straight from our history books.
According to Edwin R. Brown, Alfred Cook lived in a home that sat between Country Club Road and Highland Avenue, in that wedge of land before Chapman School. The house was at one time a shoemakers shop that was moved from the east side of the road. This is confirmed by the appearance of “A. Cook” in that spot on the 1868 Beers map, though he does not appear on any other map.
While there are death records for the Cook’s, there are no markers associated with their burials. Town death records didn’t always list where a person was buried, but in 19th century Cheshire you were buried in Hillside Cemetery or Cheshire Street Cemetery. Cheshire and much of New Haven County preferred central burying places over small family plots that you find in the rest of New England.
The Hale Collection, which lists all burial markers in every cemetery in Connecticut, showed no trace of Adeline, Alfred or Electa. This shows that the Cooks were likely poor and unable to afford carved markers. The beautiful headstones that fill New England cemeteries were definitely a sign of economic class. Those that couldn’t afford one of these headstones would have marked a grave with wooden crosses or simple fieldstones, neither of which endured the march of time. Most large cemeteries also had a potter’s field, or place they buried the unknown or indigent. Unfortunately I have been informed that Hillside Cemetery has no historic records so determining where someone was buried – in the old section at least – is impossible. So the final resting place of Adeline will remain concealed.
I haven’t found any other references to Adeline or her family, but I haven’t really looked too hard. I tend to find things when I’m not looking for them so I have no doubt that sooner or later I’ll stumble across something. It is one of those stories asking to be told, and when the time is right, Adeline will let the records be found. Until then, may ou rest in peace sweet Adeline.
Postscript: I actually hesitated in writing this post. As fascinated as I am with Adelaide’s story, I don’t want to disrespect her or any descendants she may have. I feel like saying more or making any kind of assumption does Adeline a great disservice. I simply want to tell her story, who she was and how she came to be listed as a prostitute in her death record. Adeline was one of us, a child of Cheshire. Her story brings a human dimension to what some may just see as ancient history. But her story is a part of our history and her voice deserves to be heard.