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19th-Century Woman’s Story Is Talk of Town

January 18, 1989

FAYETTE, Maine (AP) _ The long-whispered dark secret of a 19th-century woman who was ostracized by this small town after she reputedly violated one of society’s strictest sexual taboos was openly the talk of the town Wednesday.

″Everybody’s been buzzing about this,″ librarian Suzanne Rich said the day after an documentary about the woman who unknowingly married her own son was broadcast nationally on public television.

At the town office, deputy clerk Audrey Bamford said most everyone she spoke to had taped the show on their videocassette recorder. ″I guess it’s the most taped show in the town of Fayette,″ she said.

The story of Emeline Bacheldor, born in 1816, has surfaced twice in the past decade. The first was ″Emmeline,″ a fictionalized account with an altered spelling by best-selling author Judith Rossner.

Then on Tuesday, the facts came fully out in the open when a nonfiction account, ″Sins of Our Mothers,″ was shown as the final installment of Public Broadcasting Service’s ″The American Experience″ series.

Most residents of t6his western Maine town reacted favorably to the documentary, expressing shock and sadness at the way Emeline was shunned by the town and forced to live out her final years in isolation and poverty in a tiny shack.

They also noted how dramatically society’s attitudes have changed.

″Back then everybody was very puritanical, and if anyone did anything that was against the rules of the church, they avoided them like the plague. But people today are a lot more forgiving,″ said Mrs. Bamford, who helped research the program.

The program, based on interviews and town records, told how Emeline was sent to work in a Massachusetts cotton mill and became pregnant at the age of 14.

The baby was given up for adoption, and Emeline returned to Fayette where she married. Her husband later ran away, and she fell in love with a much younger man, Leonard Gurney, whom she married when she was 62.

But when Gurney’s relatives came to meet his bride, they realized he was the son she had given up. The marriage was annulled, Gurney left town and Emeline was treated as an outcast.

Criticism of the film focused on its accuracy and the motivation of those behind the project.

Arnold Sturtevant, a banker and deacon of the Fayette Baptist Church, called the documentary ″a valuable and sensitive portrayal of the human condition, a true tragedy.″

But he added: ″How much can be a true, loving concern for the poverty- stricken and socially oppressed, such as Emeline, and how much of it might be more properly characterized as selfish catering to man’s taste for prurient sensationalism?″

Library volunteer Laura Merrill complained that the film portrayed the town in a negative light.

Producer David Hoffman first learned of Emeline while interviewing Nettie Mitchell, an elderly woman known as a storyteller, in 1974 for an unrelated Bicenntennial project.

Mrs. Mitchell, who died in 1981 two days before her 95th birthday, was believed to have been the last person to set eyes upon Emeline, who died in 1898. She recalled being sent by her father to take food to the outcast woman who otherwise would have starved to death.

″I was absolutely flabbergasted,″ recalled Hoffman. He took the story to Rossner, the novelist best-known for ″Looking for Mr. Goodbar.″ Rossner’s 1980 book, ″Emmeline,″ was based on what she heard from Mrs. Mitchell, but made little claim to historic accuracy.

Before Rossner’s book, according to most accounts, Emeline’s story was a town secret, known by longtime residents.

″It was talked about, but always whispered - dirty rumors and that sort of thing,″ said Matthew Collins, director of the documentary.

Town Manager Mike DeArmott, a longtime resident, said Emeline’s story was ″one of those things that was kind of hidden away back in the corner.″

″Everyone embellished it a little bit,″ he said, and they would ″luxuriate in our little secret.″

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