Love in the Time of Tar & Feathers: Wife-Swapping Draws Angry Mob in Lenox Dale, 1900

Hisses rose from members of the congregation as the middle-aged couple entered during the evening hymn and took a seat in a rear pew. Reverend Richards looked up from his hymnal in surprise, then strode down the aisle. He leaned in to whisper to the woman, who followed him aside into the vestibule. She returned a moment later, tapped the man on his shoulder and indicated he should follow her out. Applause from the congregation followed them out.

The pair were well-known and much-discussed around Lenox Dale. Emily (aka Emelia) Hathaway had taken up residence in the Dale with her husband Joseph in 1894. But the man she entered the little Methodist Episcopal chapel in Lenox Dale on that October Sunday in 1900 was not Joseph, but Edward Wagner. Edward, a rag engineer at the paper mill, lived nearby with his wife Elsie and children Maude and George. In 1898, he had been charged and fined for fornication and adultery with a woman named Alice.

Grace Methodist Church 1840-1986

The families were close- entirely too close for the liking of Lee & Lenox Dale residents of the time. Joseph Hathaway had “stated to a number of acquaintances that Wagner was very familiar with Mrs. Hathaway.” Shortly before the Methodist church incident, the two had gone away together for a few days to Boston.

But it was their appearance at Sunday services together that proved too much for their sensibilities. While some local men got Joseph Hathaway drunk at Lenox Dale’s one saloon, a mob of men descended on their rented house, where Emily Hathaway was with Edward Wagner. Masked in handkerchiefs and white cloth (“white-capping”), a mob of around 50 or 60 men appeared outside, with 5 gallons of tar and a quantity of feathers. They demanded the pair open the door, and then began hurling rocks through the windows and battering the door. Wagner flew out of the house wielding a hammer, and chased some of the men, while Hathaway made a break for it.

The masked men pursued her with lanterns, but she hid in some bushes, and there remained most of the night, while horde smashed every pane of glass in her house with rocks.

Wagner left town for a while following the incident, but returned a few days later vowing “to make things warm for the white-cappers” in the Dale.

Boston Globe, Oct 17, 1900

No action was ever taken by local law enforcement to investigate the mob action, a fact pointedly noted by the Boston Globe. Other more local newspapers also condemned the incident, but nothing came of it. The Hathaways and Wagners moved to Monterey, where they began sharing a house. Their situation, whatever it was, was not well received in that town either, and in the February of 1901 all four were indicted on charges of “lewd and lascivious conduct.”

They were initially found guilty, and the case went back and forth on appeals over the next two years. Eventually charges were dropped, though Edward Wagner was again charged in Monterey in 1903, with being a “lewd and lascivious person.”

Not long after the two couples went their own ways- Emily Hathaway left for New Hampshire with Edward Wagner, where she becomes Emily Wagner by the time of her death in 1909.

Joseph Hathaway struck out for Connecticut with Edward’s longtime wife Elsie, who thereafter is listed in records as Elsie Hathaway.

In a curious final twist, in 1903, Edward and Elsie Wagner’s daughter Maude married Gordon Hathaway, son of Joseph and Emily. Maude Wagner was in her teens during the time her parents were living with the Hathaways, and married their son shortly after she turned 18.

They moved to Goshen, Mass. and had three children, Clarence, Harold and Edith Hathaway. The 1920 census finds Joseph and Elsie living with them in their elderly years. Joseph and Elsie are buried there in Center Cemetery, along with their respective children Gordon and Maude. Descendants of Gordon and Maud’s children (under various last names) now live in Pittsfield, Adams, and West Springfield, among other places.

Author: Joe Durwin

Berkshire-based writer Joe Durwin's "These Mysterious Hills" has run on a semi-regular basis for over than a decade, first in the former Advocate Weekly (2004-2009) and iBerkshires.com (2010-2015), along with his local history column Sagas of the Shire. His work on lore and mysteries of the region has also been featured in Fate Magazine, Haunted Times, the North Adams Transcript, as well as William Shatner’s “Weird or What” on the SyFy Channel, Jeff Belanger's "New England Legends," MSG Films’ “Bennington Triangle,” and numerous other programs for public television and radio.

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