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.

5 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?

    • 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).

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