by Joe Sheppard . . .
With a little help from his friends.
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal and as an assistant to the faculty advisor of the student newspaper - Spectrum. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
Even though I lived in her house for five years and have loved its funky Victorian grandeur for a lot longer than that, I never knew much about Yssabella Waters, the Groton native who had willed her family home to Lawrence back in the 1930s. For that matter, I doubt that more than a couple of people now associated with LA have heard anything about her beyond the urban legends of a slightly batty old woman who never left her house and who died under mysterious circumstances.
Fortunately for history, one person in the Lawrence community knows a good deal about Yssabella Gertrude Waters: Sue McKenna, the capable and caring director of the Health Center. We fell into a dinnertime conversation about her a while ago, and a few days later I spent a fascinating hour or two with Sue as she talked about this remarkable woman and shared her collection of Waters-related documents with me for this column.
Yssabella, whom her family called Belle, was born in 1862 to Charles H. and Mary Jane Farnsworth Waters. Mr. Waters was a wealthy and successful businessman who was general manager and eventually president of the Clinton Wirecloth Company, at one time the largest manufacturer of woven-wire products in the world. His wife, Mary Jane, was descended from Asa Farnsworth Lawrence, who was preceptor (headmaster) of Lawrence Academy from 1824 to 1826.
Details of Belle’s childhood and youth are relatively few. She married a Fred Artemas Brooks in 1886, but within a few years they were living apart and they eventually divorced. Mr. Brooks ended his days, as far as we know, at an old men’s home in Worcester.
Belle was active in charitable work from an early age. As a young woman she spent several years teaching school in poor neighborhoods and doing church work in impoverished areas in Massachusetts, as well as in St. Louis, where she worked for the Unity and Ethical Society. In addition to visiting the poor she taught classes in sewing, household management and literature. Appalled by her pupils’ squalid living conditions and the lack of proper health care, she entered the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University in 1895, at the age of 33, by which time she and Mr. Brooks were no longer together. After graduation in 1897 she went to work at the non-profit Henry Street Settlement in New York City, which provided shelter and a cultural center for the very poor, mostly immigrants . She didn’t stay there long, however, for, as the Spanish-American War was ending, the Army sent out a call for nurses to deal with the burgeoning number of typhoid fever cases. Her Army assignments took her from Jacksonville, Florida, to Savannah, Georgia, where she was made superintendent of nurses, and thence to Havana, where she also served as superintendent. It’s interesting to note that in Miss Waters’ day, although contracted by the Army, nurses were not members of the military and as such received no recognition for their vital services. However, in August of 1898, the same month that the Spanish-American War ended, the Surgeon General established the Nurse Corps Division to coordinate nursing efforts—the first step towards the founding of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
After the war, Yssabella (I suspect she would have outgrown “Belle” at this point) returned to New York and Henry Street, where she would serve without pay for 22 years. In 1902, Settlement founder Lillian Wald asked her to join colleague Lina Rogers to become the second school nurse in New York City. As Sue McKenna explained it, “They covered four schools—working in the schools in the mornings and visiting homes in the afternoons. This practice not only excluded sick children from school, thereby preventing the spread of disease; it also cut down on absenteeism by getting well kids back to school. The two were so successful in this undertaking that the protocols they developed were adopted by the Board of Health and by 1903, twenty-five nurses were covering 100 schools!” A few years into her Henry Street career, Belle co-founded the National Organization of Public Health Nurses , helping to formalize and gain recognition for this new branch of her profession. In 1909 she wrote “Visiting Nursing in the United States,” the first nationwide directory of nursing organizations.
Yssabella Waters and her colleagues were pioneers, the first nurses to work as independent practitioners, moving from hospital-based practice directed by doctors to caring for the sick in their own homes and schools—an outgrowth of the theories developed by Florence Nightingale that, as Sue puts it, “focused on a more holistic view of health care.” In a very real sense, it is because of the Henry Street nurses that schools like Lawrence have full-time nurses on staff.
Retiring to her home in Groton in 1921, Miss Waters became active in the Unitarian Church next to campus and did a great deal of work at the Groton Historical Society with its founder, Georgianna Boutwell, whose historic family home on Main Street still houses the Society’s headquarters. Respected and well thought-of in town, she died at home in 1938, leaving her papers and much of her personal property to the Historical Society. Unfortunately, little of her legacy remains there, for reasons unknown.
Yssabella Waters was buried in the Farnsworth family plot at the Groton cemetery, where, each Memorial Day, a flag is placed on her grave along with the other veterans’. “At last,” smiles Sue McKenna, “she has some recognition.”
1. The Settlement, which “opens doors of opportunity to enrich lives and enhance human progress..."
2. The term “public health nursing” was first coined by Lillian Wald.
on Tuesday February 24
I've mentioned before in this column that my first home at LA, back in the 1960s, was, as Mr. Ferguson described it to me in a summer letter, "a single room and bath in Waters House." For the first year or two it was just that. No kitchen, one room, one closet—with a trap door. It was bright and sunny, though, and there was a nice fireplace. After a year or two I did persuade Fergie to give me a small adjoining room, a single that was originally part of the hallway, so that at least my bed didn't have to be in the living room.
Cramped quarters notwithstanding—I had shared a huge suite of rooms with three friends for the last couple of years of college—I quickly became fond of the old place and all its faded glory. The inlaid oak floors creaked, the ancient radiators clanked, the wind rattled the loose and dried-out window frames. But the house was full of mysteries and stories, and it didn't take long for the kids, with help from Jack and Peg Burckes, who lived downstairs, to bring me up to speed on Waters lore.
Many of you know the stories. The house was a stop on the Underground Railroad after the Civil War, and the builders had included hiding places for former slaves on their way to freedom. The trap door in my closet opened to reveal one such space, a cubbyhole next to the chimney that could hold two or three people. I used it to store stuff I had confiscated from the kids. There was another one downstairs, and probably more that we never found. Sadly, my trap door was covered with subfloor when the closet was made into a small kitchen after I moved out, so that little bit of history is lost.
A couple of blocked-off stairways were the stuff of legend. The broom closet in the upstairs hall had once been a staircase leading to the third floor, where the maids had lived back in Miss Waters' day. Apparently she was a cantankerous old woman who gave her poor maid a hard time. My living room was her bedroom. The story goes that Miss Waters, who was ill, called her maid to bring her medicine. The maid, out of spite, didn't bring it, and Miss Waters died. In my living room. Where I slept every night. The maid was so despondent over her own cruelty that she hanged herself in the hall stairway. So there was a ghost in my apartment, and another one right outside my door. Great.
This brings me to the second staircase, the top end of which is closed off in the rear of the second floor, in the original part of the house. The kids called that area the Jungle. The steps once led down into a kitchen, as I remember. Anyway, there was a freshman named "Freddy" who lived in a single room in the Jungle. He was a nice boy, kind of slow-moving, quiet, and, as it turned out, supremely gullible. Early in my first year, the older kids had filled Freddy with Waters ghost stories, properly embellished. One night around ten o'clock, as I was checking everyone in for the night, I heard a horrible, gut-wrenching scream. Freddy came galloping up the corridor from the Jungle, breathless, saucer-eyed, face drained of color. He didn't need to say anything, and probably couldn't have anyway. Someone had popped out of a doorway wearing a bed sheet and shrieked at Freddy. Nobody heard much from Freddie after that.
Then there was Norm, near the end of my time in Waters. Same deal—bolting out of the Jungle as if he'd seen a ghost—but no one had done anything to scare him. He swore, between gasps, that something shapeless and ghostly had risen up in front of him out of the boarded-over stairs near his room. That one we left alone. It was a little too freaky to investigate.
The other great Waters House legend, of course, has to do with a tunnel, built for the Underground Railroad, that supposedly connected the house with the basement of the Groton Inn. I remember going down to the cellar with kids on more than one occasion to examine the massive stone walls, in search of a bricked-up entrance or some other sign that there had ever been such a thing. We even looked outdoors around the bay window facing the Inn, and I once was sure I had unearthed the remains of a brick arch. There might have been all of four bricks, but the "discovery" gave the story a bit of new life for a while. Alas, according to Dick Jeffers, who has done a great deal of research into town history, the tunnel theory has been "pretty much disproved." It was fun while it lasted.
The most surprising story of all, however, concerns the house's former owner, Miss Yssabella Waters. You’ll have to check in next month for that one. Meanwhile, check your closets for ectoplasm and click here
on Friday January 16 at 10:01AM
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