The Five Wives of Benjamin Franklin Hathaway Part 3: Helen M. Pratt

Benjamin mourned first wife a year, a decent, respectful interval. He was a man in his prime, at 41, and far from done. He embarked on marriage round two with Helen M. Pratt, another Freetown girl, and 18 years Benjamin’s junior. The age gap suggests Benjamin’s prime motive was not to create a partnership of equals at home, but, rather, to procreate.

Though he had an heir in nine-year-old Sarah, the female (then, as now) was perceived as less than the male. While Benjamin certainly loved his daughter, he believed all his striving, his shrewd investments, and years of sweat building his carpentry trade and lumber business would be for nothing, if he couldn’t leave it to a son. And Helen, a healthy and agreeable 23-year-old, would make him a suitable wife and mother of his progeny.

A mariner’s family

Helen was born on August 3, 1826 to John Vilett Pratt and Melancy Pickens. She was, perhaps, the third child and third daughter. Census records for 1830 and 1840 suggest four girls were in the household, but the only names on record are Charlotte and Helen.

Helen’s father was a captain of commercial sailing vessels, probably, in coastal waterways (according to his 1868 obituary, he began his career as a cabin boy on an African slaver). He would have routinely been away. Melancy and her girls would have missed him, fretted over the dangers he faced, and prayed for his safe return. Homecomings would have been times for celebration, tempered by prayers of gratitude. Such a life would have taught the three Pratt women patience, self-reliance, and to enjoy simple blessings.

A sister marries

When 20-year-old Charlotte Pratt told her younger sister she’d accepted George Hall’s proposal of marriage, joyful, girly shrieks echoed through the Pratt house. This experience with wedding preparations would engage the entire family, and affected Helen deeply.

A wedding dress would have been made or a best frock refashioned, but more importantly, Charlotte required everyday clothing, linens, and goods essential to set up housekeeping. Food and drink needed to be procured and prepared for the newly united Hall and Pratt families to enjoy, after the modest ceremony.

On Charlotte’s big day in 1843, summer blossoms of yellow, orange, blue and white dotted meadows and roadsides. Helen wept with that mix of happiness and sadness that arise from events that are both endings and beginnings. As the feasting wound down, Charlotte and George would’ve tried to quietly slip away, but not before the sisters shared an emotional embrace.

I imagine, Helen consoled herself with thoughts of the sort of aunt she would be to her sister’s children. Alas, that scenario never came to pass. Three years after she married, Charlotte Pratt Hall died, and left no children.

Becoming Mrs. Hathaway

American, silk wedding dress 1845-1850.

Silk wedding dress 1845-1850. Credit: Archive.org; Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Helen’s father and Benjamin Hathaway had likely done business together in New Bedford, maybe, as ship captain and shipwright; maybe, Pratt delivered the lumber Benjamin sold. Whether John acted the matchmaker, or Benjamin was the pursuer, in 1849, Helen was presented with the biggest decision of her life.

The bustling port of New Bedford, would be more interesting than sleepy Freetown. Taking over a widower’s household that included a step-daughter might daunt another woman, but Helen Pratt was competent and confident she could make and keep a good Christian home.

Helen also realized that year, she was Charlotte’s age, not the age she married, but 23, the age she died. Perhaps, Helen saw Benjamin’s offer as a blessing.

On Wednesday, October 3, 1849, Baptist elder, Samuel S. White, married the widowed carpenter and the “maiden” in Freetown. Nothing further appears on record until February 21, 1852 when the death of Benjamin and Helen’s one-day-old daughter, Charlotte M. Hathaway. The following month, Helen Pratt Hathaway died  from “Congestion of Brain.” She was 25 years old, and like her sister Charlotte, she had no surviving child.

Gravestone of Helen (Pratt) Hathaway, Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, MA.

Helen (Pratt) Hathaway, Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, MA [Credit: Find A Grave contributor, goose, 2015.]

Alone again

Benjamin’s second marital outing lasted, less than two and a half years, and resulted in another lost child and another dead wife. He spent another year in mourning, but he hadn’t forgotten his grand plan. He would marry again.

 

Next: Third time a charm?

 

 

 

 

Sources and References:

  1. Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988; Freetown  and New Bedford.
  2. Ancestry.com. NARA, United States Federal Census,1830, 1840; Freetown, MA.
  3. Wikipedia; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_mariner
  4. GenealogyBank; Newport Mercury (Newport, RI); Saturday, April 18, 1868, Page: 3; Capt. John V. Pratt.
  5. Smithsonian Magazine; Queen Victoria Dreamed Up the White Wedding Dress in 1840; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/queen-victoria-sparked-white-wedding-dress-trend-1840-180953550/
  6. Death was with Them: Old medical terms; http://www.tngenweb.org/darkside/medical-terms.html
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