Young, lovely, ill-fated: the Atkins sisters

My first project in Milton historical research was to tell the stories of the people whose names appear in the stained glass windows of the Lydia B. Cannon Museum. The windows were installed during a big renovation of the building in 1906, which was then the Milton Methodist Protestant church and renamed around 1939 as Grace United Methodist. Members of the congregation in 1906 who had donated significant amounts to the building fund were given the opportunity to have their names or the names of a loved one inscribed on the windows. While I have been mostly successful in my search for the stories behind the names, I had until recently found only one photograph linked to any of them – N. Wallace White, who was an occasionally successful entrepreneur.

One name in particular, that of Mary E. M. Atkins, proved to be particularly intriguing once I had found the details of her story. In early 1905, Mary was a nineteen year old woman from a comfortable middle class family, destined for a quietly conventional life of marriage, family, and church. If she were to be remembered more than a century later, it would have been only through an old photograph or family lore. This was the case for the majority of young women of that era in Sussex County, but it would not be so for her.

Mary Emma Maloy Atkins

Mary Emma Maloy Atkins (1885 – 1905) is one of those tragic figures that I could not stop thinking about for years. Her untimely, inexplicable death (from “brain fever”) was devastating to her family and friends, and disorienting for the rest of the town. I told her story some years ago, which you can read by following this link. David A. Conner wrote what amounts to a eulogy of her short life in the Milford Chronicle, which you can read at this link. Her grieving parents, George W. Atkins and Lucy Mason Atkins, funded a window in her name in the Milton Methodist Protestant Church (today’s Lydia B. Cannon Museum).

To Miltonians, Mary’s death seemed random, out of the blue. There was no preamble of acute or chronic illness, no struggle in childbirth, to prepare people for her passing. Surely this was the reason why Conner began his column with “Perhaps no death has struck such consternation to the hearts of the people of Milton, as that of Miss Mary Emma Maloy Atkins …” For me personally, I experienced my own consternation at not having an image of her to look at..

One of the exciting aspects of the kind of research I do is that sometimes I get really lucky. Through ancestry.com, I found myself in contact with Marcella Hudson Goodrich, a descendant of the Atkins family line; she owned a portrait of Mary E. M. Atkins in her adolescent years, and one of her Mary’s sister Estella Hulings Atkins as well. Mary’s photograph, probably taken in early adolescence, appears below.

Mary E. M. Atkins, ca. 1901, photo courtesy of Marcella Hudson Goodrich

I have taken some comfort from this image, knowing that Mary E. M. Atkins will be remembered a little more vividly now.

Estella Hulings Atkins Darby

Estella Hulings Atkins (1876 – 1911) was almost a decade older than Mary, and was first out of the gate in assuming adult responsibilities. She married river pilot Capt. Charles E. Darby in January of 1901, and had her first child, Charles Austin, in 1902. She had moved away from Milton with her husband to Camden, New Jersey, but visited with her family from time to time. Two years after Mary’s death, she had her second child, Lucius Atkins, and sometime before 1910, she and her family had moved back to Milton. In 1911, at the age of 33, she died of complications from Bright’s disease, commonly referred to today as nephritis.

Estella Hulings Darby, nee Atkins, date unknown; photo courtesy of Marcella Hudson Goodrich

Epilogue

How does a parent carry on after losing both of his children in their prime? Even in an age where untimely death was commonplace, losses such as that experienced by George W. and Lucy Atkins would be an terrible blow. George died in 1915, at the age of 63, suffering from complications of several illnesses, exhausted from work and from living with the catastrophic loss of his daughters.

Lucy, his widow, fared somewhat better. She remarried in 1923, to Rev. William H. Greene. Perhaps her faith sustained her, or she was made of stronger stuff. In any event, she outlived Rev. Greene as well, passing away in 1930 at the age of 80.

13 thoughts on “Young, lovely, ill-fated: the Atkins sisters

  • William T. Jones

    My paternal grandmother, Virginia Burton Jones, probably knew both of these women. She was born in 1883 and died in 1976.
    She was married to Charles G. Jones, who was known as “Jones the Holly Wreath man.”

    • Phil Martin

      Yes, that would have been quite likely; she was close in age with Mary E. M. Atkins. If Virginia attended the Methodist Protestant church, they would have definitely been familiar with each other.

  • Anne Pratt

    Phil: Five years ago, I bought what is known as the Capt. John F. Fisher House at 308 Chestnut St., Milton.
    I have your information on Margaret Atkins Fisher, Captain Fisher’s second wife. I am curious to know if
    Maggie Fisher is related to Mary & Estella Atkins.

    • Phil Martin

      Yes she was; Maggie was their aunt. In a small town like Milton that had an insular population, almost everyone is related to everyone else if you go far enough back. Maggie, however, was a pretty close relative. What information did you receive about the house from the people you bought it from?

      • Anne Biddle Pratt

        I did not learn anything about the house and its history from the previous owner,
        I have heard stories about Maggie, though, and not complimentary ones! My sense of it is, that her husband, Captain Fisher, sailed all over the world, leaving her , a young bride,
        to care for his 3 children by his first wife , It was from you that I learned that Maggie left
        him and lived in Philadelphia. Why did the town dislike her? She was from a fine family.
        Was it the age difference between her and Captain Fisher? Doesn’t make sense to me.

        • Phil Martin

          Anne, I would be interested to know the source of the less complimentary stories! There is so little to go on regarding Maggie Atkins Fisher that even fourth-hand gossip would help me fill in some of the gaps in her story. Right now, we can only speculate as to why she was disliked (or not spoken about). The fact that she and Capt. Fisher eloped to Philadelphia to get married indicates to me some degree of disapproval of the relationship on the part of the Atkins and Fisher families. There was the age difference, but older men married younger women back then, as they do today. Was there some scandalous behavior that preceded the marriage? Was Maggie a little too free-spirited for her time and place (no one would scorn a man for sowing wild oats, but for women it was another story)? And it’s not like Maggie would not have known about sea captains’long voyages and absences, in a town filled with sea captains.
          In short, I think her leaving Fisher and the shunning of her by the townspeople were not senseless occurrences but resulted from some sort of behavior that we can only guess at.

          • Anne Pratt

            I was hoping to put a sign on my house — “The Capt. John F. Fisher House, circa 1900″. I mentioned it to
            Judy Fisher ( hoping also to find a connection between Capt. John and Don Fisher). Judy said ” Why would you want to put up a sign about an abuser?” That stopped me in my tracks. Maybe the Pennsylvania Historical Society has
            some record of Maggie Fisher…. wouldn’t a diary be nice ?

          • Phil Martin

            There’s only one line in a newspaper report, about Maggie’s reappearance in the 1920’s to claim her share of her husband’s estate, that references fear of abuse as the reason for Maggie’s leaving. What I wouldn’t give for a look at Maggie’s diary or letters! However, I wouldn’t hesitate to put up a plaque on your Fisher house, because he was uniformly viewed as a leading citizen for a long time. The house is historic and should be viewed as such.

          • Anne Pratt

            I agree! I plan to do that— there is just so much to cope with right now, that I dread
            jumping through the hoops that the Milton Historic Preservation Committee would
            come up with ! Maybe I’ll go ahead and then hope for forgiveness….

    • Phil Martin

      Maggie was the Atkins girls’ aunt (and probably the relative who wasn’t talked about in front of the girls because of her unconventional behavior).

  • Marcella Darby Hudson

    My grandfather Lucius Adkins Darby told stories about his father Charles Darby. He was very young when his mother died. He always said his father was a ‘Lady’s man’ and his mother died of a broken heart. His father moved to Philadelphia and remarried. Lou and his brother lived with their maternal grandmother Lucy Adkins for a few years as was his mothers wish. Eventually his father took them back. We gathered that the home life there was not good. At that point he had a half-brother. He worked hard to save up money to travel and spend summers with his grandmother. He worked the summer to earn money for the trip home. Eventually, after my mother was several years old, he moved his family back to Milton.

    • Anne Biddle Pratt

      Sad story— children surprise me with their resilience. Do you have any stories about Maggie Adkins,
      who married Capt. John F. Fisher? I bought Captain Fisher’s house about 6 years ago and when I
      mentioned that I wanted to put his name on the house, a neighbor (also a Fisher) asked why I’d
      want to honor an abusive man! Can you shed any light on this ?

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