October 13, 2014

Emmeline Bachelder, Fate, and the Fayette Factor

October is our national month of monsters, ghosts and witches. It's the time when America allows itself to be scared by horror movies and haunted houses, and even your nicest neighbor covers their house with giant spiders and puts skeletons on their front lawn.

Every month is a scary month on this blog - witches and monsters are de rigeur. So for this pre-Halloween post I am going to write about something really scary. It's so scary I'm not even sure what to call it.

Let's start with the story of Emmeline Bachelder. Emmeline was born in 1816 to a farm family living in the small town of Fayette, Maine. Life can still be difficult in rural Maine today, but in the early 19th century people endured a level of poverty we can't quite fathom. At the age of 13 Emmeline's parents sent her to Massachusetts to work in one of the mill towns. She was supposed to send home her pay to help support her parents.

It was Emmeline's first time in a large city. She found work in a mill, but was soon seduced by one of the foremen and became pregnant at the age of 14. One of her aunts lived nearby and helped Emmeline deliver the baby, which was sold to a well-off local couple. According to legend, the aunt never even showed Emmeline the baby or told her who it was sold to. Emmeline returned to Fayette. She never told anyone what happened.

When she was 28 she married a Maine man named George Chambers and had a son with him. But after 20 years he left her and she found herself single once again.

I imagine at this point Emmeline was resolved to being single for the rest of her life. She was middle-aged and Fayette was a small place. There just weren't that many eligible men in town. The years passed by and she remained alone. So I also imagine she was quite happy when Leonard Gurney moved to Fayette from southern New England. He was at least ten years younger than Emmeline and handsome. He was also instantly attracted to her, a feeling which was mutual.

You might see where this is going.

Emmeline and Leonard were married. Emmeline was 62; Leonard was 48. They lived happily together until her aunt, now quite elderly, came to visit. When she saw Leonard she was horrified. He was the baby that Emmeline had sold. Emmeline had unknowingly married her own son. She had broken one of society's biggest taboos.

When the truth was revealed Leonard immediately left Emmeline. Gossip spread through Fayette and Emmeline's reputation was ruined. She became a pariah - even her legitimate son abandoned here - and she died alone and penniless at the age of 81. It's believed that her body is buried outside the walls of the Moose Hill Cemetery in Sagamore Falls, Maine.

Is this story true? It seems too archetypal, just too "Oedipus in Maine" to be real. But apparently it is true. After doing extensive research the PBS show The American Experience produced a documentary about Emmeline in 1989 called "Sins of Our Mothers." Her life has also been the source of a novel (Emmeline by Judith Rossner) and an opera of the same name by Tobias Picker.

I think the sheer awfulness of Emmeline's situation makes people doubt the truth of her story. Was it just bad luck on her part? Maybe it was just her fate, the result of some random occurrences. But maybe she fell victim to something called the Fayette Factor.

Can one man's name cause a lot of problems? A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Fayette Factor was first proposed (discovered? invented?) by paranormal investigator Jim Brandon in the 1970s. According to Brandon, and later writers like Loren Coleman, places in the United States that have the word "Fayette" in their name are more likely to experience strange phenomena.

For example:

  • People in Fayatteville, Arkansas have reported water monsters, UFOs, and assorted humanoid creatures.
  • In North Carolina, the town of Fayatteville has a haunted mansion, the Slocumb House, which is connected to the Cape Fear River Channel by a tunnel. The river has been the location of multiple Bigfoot sightings. 
  • Fayette County near Pittsburgh experienced a wave of Bigfoot sightings in the 1970s. Some of the creatures were seen in conjunction with UFOs. 
  • La Fayette County, Ohio was haunted by a mysterious, giant black cat, as was Lafayette, Wisconsin. 
  • Places with the word 'fayette' in their name appear in connection with many famous crimes, including the Son of Sam murders and JFK's assassination. 

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Emmeline's home town of Fayette, Maine was the sight of witchcraft in the 18th century (according to the journals of minister Paul Coffin) and was also home to the "Moving Arm Ghost" which haunted a nearby spring. The ghost would offer a copper pot of water to travelers, but when irritated would throw water at them. Loren Coleman also claims there is a cave called the Devil's Den located nearby.

Why would the name Fayette be linked to paranormal phenomena? Most American locations with Fayette in their name were named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military strategist who helped the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Perhaps the strange phenomena occur because the Marquis was involved with the Freemasons and other vaguely occultish groups. Or maybe it's not the Marquis himself but just his name, Lafayette, which may mean "little enchantment" or "small fairy." The related English word 'fey' can mean unlucky or doomed. Incorporating the word into your town's name might just be an invitation for those tricky fey forces to come pay a visit...

Logically, I don't think this makes any sense. There are many places in New England, like the Bridgewater Triangle or even Gloucester, with more paranormal phenomena than Fayette, Maine. How do you even decide what counts as strange phenomena? Some things are obviously unusual (Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts), but unfortunately murders are an everyday occurrence. Jim Brandon also includes strange weather events when discussing the Fayette Factor, but let's face it, strange weather occurs all across America and is only increasing.

Emotionally, though, the Fayette factor resonates with me. As an explanatory theory it is creepy and a little paranoid, but despite it's logical flaws at least it's an explanation of why things, particularly weird and scary things, happen. It's a paranormal form of theodicy, telling us why bad things happen to good people. It's reassuring to think we aren't just in the wrong place at the wrong time when something terrible occurs to us.

Maybe it would have comforted Emmeline Bachelder Gurney to know about the Fayette Factor. She would have had some reason for the strange turn her life took. Otherwise, Emmeline just encountered really bad luck. There was no reason for what happened to her, it was just a roll of the cosmic dice. Which is probably the scariest explanation there is.

*********

Most of my information about Emmeline Bachelder is from this article in the New York Times. You can read more about the Fayette Factor in Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, or Jim Brandon's book The Rebirth of Pan. Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit. The book's title indicates the wonderful depths of craziness inside its covers.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

The cemetery is in Livermore Falls,Maine. I'm native ftom this town and know the story well

Rhonda Thomas said...

The cemetery is in Livermore Falls,Maine. I'm native ftom this town and know the story well