Maggie Fisher’s Disappearing Act

In a previous post I wrote about Dr. Robert B. Hopkins and his much younger Danish bride – an apparently happy marriage that lasted until Dr. Hopkin’s death over thirty years later. Another out-of-the-blue marriage of Milton people—the distinguished, widowed sea captain John Fletcher Fisher and the much younger Margaret Coulter Carey Atkins, a member of a prominent local family, had a less happy outcome and an unusual epilogue. For the full article and more photographs of Margaret Fisher, click here.

Margaret Coulter Carey Fisher (1864 - 1942), from a ferrotype ca. 1880
Margaret Coulter Carey Fisher (1864 – 1942), from a ferrotype ca. 1880

In 1890, Captain John F. Fisher was about 41 years old and had been a widower for three years, with four surviving children ranging in age from 9 to 17 years old. The successful master of a schooner, Capt. Fisher was highly regarded in Milton, and had made numerous investments in property and businesses there and in Philadelphia. Margaret Atkins, or “Maggie” as she was often called, was a member of one of the most prominent families in Milton. Little if anything is known about her childhood, other than she completed eight years of schooling. In 1890, she was 26 years old.

What is most interesting about this couple is what was not said in the Milton News letter or any other newspaper, despite the high status of the two families involved. Capt. Fisher and Maggie Atkins found it necessary to elope to Philadelphia; there was a very brief announcement of the marriage in one of the Philadelphia newspapers, and then – nothing. There was no mention of the marriage in the Milton News letter. David A. Conner admits several times over the years that, as the correspondent for Milton, he did not report events that would bring embarrassment to an individual or a family, if he felt that the parties involved merited such consideration. We know Conner was a personal friend of George W. Atkins, Maggie’s brother. We can speculate that Maggie’s family probably did not approve of her relationship to Capt. Fisher, and if she had talked about marriage with her family, there would have been resistance on the part of the latter. Although much older than Maggie, Capt. Fisher was certainly prosperous, respectable and well thought of in town, so the family’s disapproval is puzzling, if indeed that was the case. There may have been resistance from Capt. Fisher’s own family as Maggie was barely ten years older than Fisher’s oldest son. Yet another possibility is that this was a sudden, whirlwind romance, and the pair could not or would not wait for a full-blown wedding to be planned and held. Would this have been regarded as somehow scandalous? We are unlikely to ever discover what really transpired that led to the elopement.

The newlyweds returned to Milton and took up residence there, most probably in Capt. Fisher’s house with the children by his first wife. The Milton News letter of August 14, 1891 relates how Capt. John Fisher and his wife chaperoned some house guests around the county, and in the Milton News letter of April 22, 1892, Conner talks about an impressive banner for the Sussex W. C. T. U. embroidered by Mrs. Maggie Fisher. This skill would turn out to be the means by which she sustained her life a few years later,

For reasons unknown, something went sour between Mr. and Mrs. Fisher. In 1899, Maggie left her husband and Milton, and took up residence as a boarder in Philadelphia, where she would support herself through her needlework, according to U. S. Census records for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930.

The story would have ended at this point, but for a report I came across in the Wilmington morning and evening newspapers from December 24 to December 29, 1924. Capt. Fisher died in August of that year, and there was absolutely no mention of Maggie Fisher as his second wife. He left no will. Fisher’s family assumed Maggie was dead after not having heard from her in 25 years. A few months after Capt. Fisher’s death, Maggie somehow learned about it, and filed suit in Philadelphia and Georgetown demanding one half of Fisher’s estate; this was probably quite a shock to the Fisher family, and is quite astonishing even now. But, there having been no divorce, as his widow she was entitled to half of the estate per Delaware law. As for her absence of 25 years, she told the newspapers that she left when she began to fear injury at the hands of her husband. There is no way to verify the truth of her assertion, but it is certainly plausible; she seems to have done a good job of disappearing from view. Whether she maintained contacts with any of the Atkins family in Milton is unknown.

Although I haven’t yet looked through the Orphans’ Court case histories, I suspect the matter of estate claims was ultimately settled out of court; in March of 1925 Capt. Fisher’s house and possessions were sold off, presumably to settle claims among the heirs.

Maggie Fisher ultimately moved to Spring Lake, New Jersey, where she ran a needle craft store until her death in 1942.

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