David Ruggles/Hannah Randall House, Florence, Massachusetts, Part Three
A Difficult Transition: Ruggles to Charles Munde
Though Ruggles’ health had become critical in September of 1849 it wasn’t until November that he and others realized how close he was to death. His mother and sister came up from Norwich to see to his needs. In a remarkable document, a writer known to us only as Z. W. H., faithfully reported on the last several months of Ruggles life to Frederick Douglass of the North Star. (February 1, 1850).
Early in Sept. he began to be troubled with a severe pain and inflammation in the left eye, from which he was never entirely relieved…Dr. Walker advised him to give up all care and business for a while, that his already overtasked mental and bodily energies might have time to recruit. But it was difficult for him to do this while his house was filled with patients, some of them very sick, and most of them depending upon him for daily advice and attention. He declined taking new patients and sought, as far as was possible under the circumstances, the rest and quiet he so much needed. But his health continued to fail, and in the latter part of November he was seized with severe inflammation of the bowels...During the last three weeks of his life he was confined to his bed and most of the time his mind seemed to be wandering, and burdened with the care of patients, arranging plans for the improving [of] the grounds about the establishment, erecting new buildings, etc., etc.
To demonstrate the difficulty of assessing the state of Ruggles’ affairs when he died we have these two contradictory statements made by two respected historians.
...at the height of his success and when his sanitarium was filled to capacity, David Ruggles, at the early age of 39 died.
Dorothy Porter, The Northampton Book, page124
His business fortunes, too, declined after his modest establishment faced fancier competition in the late 1840s. Had he not died on the day after Christmas 1849, [actually December 16] he would have gone bankrupt in 1850.
Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, 1996
David Ruggles’ Probate record runs to seventy pages—the list of creditors to fifty persons and businesses. Is this the stop-frame of an enterprise about to arrive successfully at the numbers of its five-year plan or a train wreck in progress? There is much work to be done to arrive at a consensus on this question. Sorting out the meaning of the many connections, deals, and accounts recorded in the probate record has begun.
It was clear to the administrators of the estate, Samuel L. Hill and Charles Smith (two of the creditors who ultimately forgave the debt owed them) that the best outcome would be to attract a new proprietor. According to his son Paul, Charles Munde heard of Ruggles’ death through Horace Greeley in New York City where Munde was struggling to forge a practice after studying with Priessnitz himself (Sheffeld, page 191). Through careful planning by the judge, commissioners and administrators and a cooperative and patient attitude on the part of the creditors, Munde was installed at the water cure. “Long credit” (in actuality a three year term) was supplied by the administrators Hill and Smith. Further guarantees were provided by Justin Thayer and John P. Williston. Williston’s father, the well-know Rev. Payson Williston of Easthampton, wrote a testamonial to Ruggles skill, attributing the cure of his lameness to Ruggles’ treatment (Hampshire Gazette, October 26, 1847). It appears most creditors received payment of the bulk of their claims by 1854.
Changes at the Water Cure and the Recollections of Arthur G. Hill
The remembrances of Samuel L. Hill’s son Arthur, a boyhood friend of Paul Munde, have been invaluable for piecing together the development of early Florence. The area known first as Broughton’s Meadow, then The Community, then Bensonville and Greenville, finally became Florence in 1852 at the suggestion of Charles Munde. In an article on Munde’s water cure for the Hampshire Gazette, March 24, 1906, Arthur G. Hill provided two pieces of information crucial to our efforts to retrace the history of the Barrett “oil mill house.”
The original small Ruggles house was removed to and still occupies the location at the summit of the knoll on South Street. A good sized two-story house was erected in its place and as the business rapidly developed large additions were made, which gave accommodation to a hundred guests besides the family and servants.
With diligent detective work this clue alone could have been enough to suspect the small house at 47 Florence Road (formerly South Street). As late as the 1860 Walling atlas only one building outline appears on the east side of the road, at the crest of the hill—that of “Mrs. Randall.”
New Homes for Hannah Randall and Basil Dorsey
By 1849, the cotton mill that was formerly the factory boarding house of the NAEI was supervised by J. P. Williston with his brother Samuel and the Hayden brothers of Williamsburg as partners. Though this group of orthodox evangelicals had forced out the radical George W. Benson they continued a policy of hiring African-Americans as operatives, several of whom were fugitive slaves. The 1850 census shows that as many as 35 African-Americans lived on Nonotuck Street across from the cotton mill. Basil Dorsey, a fugitive slave from Maryland lived there as well as Hannah Randall and her three children who were all listed as being from Massachusetts.
Dorsey’s escape had been assisted by Ruggles in New York in the late 1830’s. He arrived in Broughton’s Meadow during the Community days in 1844 and became the primary teamster for the cotton factory. In 1849 he bought lot 12 of Bensonville Village Lots on what became known as Nonotuck Street and built a house there. On March 1, 1852 he sold this house while simultaneously purchasing the house of William Warner and six acres southwest of the Mill River from Samuel L. Hill and Selah Trask. In the middle of the three acres that Hill sold Dorsey and the three-and-half acres that Selah Trask sold him that day, Hill set aside one acre with a dwelling house where William Wright was living. (Hampshire County Record Book 142, page 439).
The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in September 1850. Ten self-proclaimed fugitive slaves from Northampton including Bensonville residents Basil Dorsey, Joseph Willson, Lewis French, Henry Anthony and William Wright called on Northampton residents “to adopt such measures as they may deem proper to prevent Massachusetts from being made slave hunting ground.” (Northampton Courier, October 15, 1850). William Wright age 50, Sara Wright, age 40 and Jessamine Freeman, age 15, are listed living together in the 1850 census apparently nearby former NAEI members Austin Ross, Cyrus Bradbury, and Joseph Martin.
In an undated manuscript entitled “Florence, the Sanctuary of the Colored Race” Arthur G. Hill took us the rest of the way.
Hannah Randall, a colored laundry woman of the water cure came into possession of Dr. Ruggles little house and it was moved to the hill of South Street, which she occupied until her death.
Her deed from Hiram Stebbins of April 26, 1856 reads:
a parcel of land with a dwelling house thereon…on the Westerly side of the highway leading to Easthampton…being the same acre reserved and described in a certain deed from Samuel Hill to Basil Dorsey dated March 1, 1852...
When Charles Munde decided to replace the small “old Barrett House” (Hampshire County Probate, Box 263, No.9, Inventory page 26, January 8, 1850) with a new two-story structure it appears Samuel L. Hill orchestrated its removal to the reserved acre and rented temporarily to William Wright before transferring the property to Hiram Stebbins who sold it to Hannah Randall. She paid Stebbins $600 for the house and acre and took out a three-year mortgage for $200 with James Dunn Atkins, the dyer for the Nonotuck Silk Company and a former member of the Northampton Association. She owned the property free and clear by Septemer 12, 1859. (Hampshre County Record Book 167, pp. 257-260). She would live there until her death in 1883. A rather short deed trail leads directly to the current owners of 47 Florence Road.
More Work to be Done
The owners were kind enough to invite us in. We looked through the house for the predicted heavy timber framing of the 1830s. This is just what we found, along with indications that the building served the more utilitarian purposes that could be associated with its use as an “oil mill house.” We are still in the process of evaluating the structure and hope to get back in soon to have a second look. Clearly it would be good to know if the current window measurements approximate the dimensions of the shades Ruggles was having James Stetson look into. We also hope to identify the best place to excavate to uncover the house’s former foundation at the Spring Street site.
This remarkable house and the history that was played out between its walls might never have come to our attention were it not for Arthur G. Hill and his desire to pass on the history of the times in which he grew up.