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‘His Third Helpmate’
The Economics of Wife-Taking in Plantation America
From the Ghosts of Longmarsh Run, 1761
A reading of The Ghosts of Longmarsh Run leaves the reader with a sense of suffering economic family extension rather than the dynamic nuclear family expansion proposed by Thomas White, in reference to Genesis in his Planters Plea. It was typical for a man of middling means to wear out one wife birthing and raising his blood chattel, children who would work for him and whom he might sell or rent once [as Thomas Hellier’s father had], twice [as Benjamin Franklin’s father had] and perhaps thrice [as William Garrison’s father had]. Once this woman had born anywhere from one to ten children she would perish and be replaced by a [usually] younger woman. If this man was typical he would buy a trafficked girl, perhaps sold by her parents or sibling guardian. If he was well-connected he might gain a marriage with a woman of some standing or property, or perhaps with a young lass whose father would let her go for cheap in hopes of future considerations. If a man was of means, as Beeler was after two marriages, with adult sons pf an age to carry on his high level of industry, he might attract a young woman of standing from Boston, New York, Philadelphia or perhaps the home country in Europe, as Beeler did.
The result was a large family, sometimes evenly split between half-siblings [such as in Ben Franklin’s case] or further layered with step-children. One must not forget the old American axiom of “beating him like a red-headed stepchild,” which had its roots in the habit of new Planters buying an Irish servant for a wife and then when she was worn out, upgrading to and English woman for a wife who would very likely have little compassion for her predecessor’s children. The Beelers were refreshingly not at all of this type. Even though their German Sectarian End Time Christian denomination was quickly—as evidenced by the concerns of the living and the dead in this ghost story—becoming focused on material prosperity, mirroring the seduction by mammon of the Quakers and the Puritans, the multilayered Beeler family, born of masculine greed and feminine need, demonstrated compassion extended to step-relations and half-relations.
The body of this account is a relation by Christopher Beeler’s third wife concerning her haunting by the ghost of his second wife with an additional relation by her step-son, a man of compassion, who, as was the entire religious community of the German Seventh Day Adventist community of Ephrata Cloister who hosted the haunted third wife in her extremity as she was visited by the ghost of the second wife, witnessed by children of the first wife. Hanging over all, the modern reader will discern, is the grim shadow of Christopher Beeler, who seemed a moderately evil man who felt the need to atone for sins upon his family as Death drew near his counting room door. Most modern secular folk will interpret the following excerpts as evidence that Christopher Beeler beat his third wife and that her hauntings may have represented a psychic break caused by her alienation and brutalization. If a reader is of the mind to believe the supernatural assertions she makes, than at the very least, one must determine that Beeler served all of his wives cruelly, beating them according to the custom of the country and that the ghost of the third and eldest wife felt some compassion for her younger replacement.
This document was written, witnessed and printed by respected members of two communities as a living record of events they agreed upon be folks who saw themselves as Christ flowers “planted” in heathen soil to bring about the transcendence of “later day” saints awaiting communion with the Almighty once they have been whisked away by death in a state purified by austerity to advocate on behalf of suffering humanity.
“I Eliseba Beeler, otherwise known as Hennrietha Wilhelmine von Honing, in the year 1760 married Christopher Beeler, an inhabitant of New Virginia in Frederick County. I am his third helpmate. The first one died in Ephrata ad left him three children. The other one was the widow of a man named Michael Schule… She also died in March 1758 and, besides leaving behind a considerable number of children she had with the said Schule, there were three fathered by her last husband. Then I followed her…”
“On the 10th of January this 1761st year, in the morning while I was still lying in bed awake, I suddenly was overcome by a slumber. Then I felt as if my husband was beating me hard which saddened me very much, and I implored him to let me be and promised to move out of the house again. [1] When I was about to leave it seemed to me that the door opened and an old woman came in… There was a chair nearby on which she put me down. The bruises on my arms [2] where she had touched me while sitting me down, were visible for several days…”
What follows is a litany of minor treasure revelations by the ghost of the second wife—more of which were to come before various witnesses—with the ordeal affecting the third wife, Eliseba, in such wise, “…this incidence affected my human body [3] so severely that I thought I might lose my life. All of a sudden I vomited a half pint of blood, and this still went on for 24 hours.”
The remainder of the account concerns various happenings witnessed either by folk experiencing a supernatural series of visitations or by superstitious folk in the grip of mass hysteria. In the latter case, perhaps the younger wife, not bearing a child for her new master, and being visited by her own admission by a neighboring man, engaged in theatrics to deflect the wrath of her cruel husband. And perhaps there is a middling interpretation, as the constant witnessed finding of coins and money by a woman new to her environs might indicate some sort of channeling.
-1. Indicates that Beeler had beat her at various impact levels and had put her out of the house at least once already, despite her kindness to his children demonstrated by various sources in the document.
-2. The account suggests these bruises were made by the husband.
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