She Was A Holyoke Girl, Part II

by Laurel | January 20th, 2014

20 Jan 2014

From all evidence, it appears that Miss Nellie Everetta Backus Bowman was from a notable family. Her father, Quimby Silas Backus,  was a man of some influence and means. It is possible that Nellie’s husband, John Oliver Bowman, was a graduate of Harvard Law School, there is some evidence although my research is not conclusive.

John Oliver Bowman was born in Pennsylvania between 1848 – 1849.  While the Holyoke Backus-Bowman marriage record reports John O. Bowman to be age 25, in actuality he was age 34 at the time of their marriage, while Nellie Backus was just 18 years old.

A few facts: This marriage to Nellie was a second marriage for John Bowman; his first wife, Minnie K. (maiden surname unknown) died on 04 February 1881 “in her twenty-eighth year”1 and funeral services were conducted from the “residence of her husband” in Merchantville, Camden, N.J. On the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, the John. O. Bowman family were living at 17 Chestnut Ave, Merchantville along with two children, Carl M., age 5, (born Dec 1874) at school, and daughter Minnie L., born in Feb. 1880. In addition living with the family are Blanche E. Bowman, age 14 and J. Harry, age 22, John Bowman’s siblings. There is also a servant and a cook. All people in the Bowman family are recorded as born in Pennyslvania.

By all accounts John Bowman and Nellie Backus met while Bowman was on vacation in Winchester, Massachusetts, spending some quiet post bereavement time with his family after the death of his wife in 1881. Nellie’s father Quimby had business in Winchendon and certainly would have been there and undoubtedly they traveled in the same social circles.  In the papers many comments are made about Nellie’s beauty; a natural blonde and very sophisticated. Bowman and his children are said to have been smitten with her. The relationship developed and, as mentioned in the last article, they were married in Holyoke in May 1883. Bowman, with a law practice in Philadelphia, moved the family to that city soon after and Nellie’s parents followed though I believe Quimby S. Backus had plenty of business in Philadelphia, so it was not without a dual purpose.  John O. Bowman and Nellie E. Backus had two children, Marion L., born March 1885 and Fred Q., born Dec 1890.

Between 1891 and 1892 there were many articles published about this case, particularly in the Philadelphia area. But the wires carried the stories also, so many of the events surrounding the case were watched daily and were often page one news, filled with sensationalism and intrigue, determining the truth is almost impossible. So for today, this is an article that at least has some more of the details — though there is difficulty in differentiating truth from lies and accusation. Due to the length there will probably be just one more installment.

Lawyer Bowman Will Apply For Divorce
Papers To Be Filed in the Courts This Morning
Story of a Woman’s Flight
Her Insane Infatuation for Dr. Hewitt,
Who Disappeared on the Very Same Day
That Mrs. Bowman took Her Departure to Devon

 John O. Bowman will file a libel for divorce against his wife this morning. A most intimate friend of Counselor Bowman is authority for the statement that Dr. Hewill and Mrs. Bowman are on their way to Havre, France, having sailed on a French line steamer on Saturday morning. The wronged husband will make not attempt to bring back the couple. Though crushed by the terrible blow at his happiness, he is manfully standing up under the misfortune. “Hewitt’s life will be ended soon,” he declared vehemently to a friend yesterday, overcome by the force of his emotion.

The elopement of the young wife and the flight of Dr. C. Ellsworth Hewitt are still the sole topics of conversation in certain circles. The husband claims to know that the couple have fled together and are now in mid ocean. This news was brought him by detectives, and it it stated that they were employed by the destroyer of the lawyer’s happiness in order to enable him to facilitate the matter of a divorce. These detectives, it is understood, have placed in Mr. Bowman’s possession the positive proofs of his wife’s wrong doing. the mystery of the case is to find the cause from Mrs. Bowman’s preference for the attenuated physician to her affectionate and devoted husband. There are scores of friends of Lawyer Bowman who are loud in their denunciation of the woman and as earnest extolling the goodness of the husband. They say that he was all that an affectionate man could be to a wife. Nothing that she desired did he fail to provide, and so loathe was he to believe anything wrong of her that he deliberately shut his ears to stories that reached them occasionally. As soon as it is possible he will move away from North Fifteenth Street and devote his time to his four children.

An Old Story Repeated

It is the old story of a county girl unable to withstand glitter of city life, and in the search for excitement losing regard for her family and reputation. She was a pretty country lass of 17 when Mr. Bowman first saw her in the Massachusetts town of Winchester, where he was passing a vacation two years after the death of his first wife. She was flattered by his attentions and consented to his proposal of marriage. Her family moved to Philadelphia shortly after the wedding and established themselves at 1817 North broad Street, a square from their daughter’s home.

Before her acquaintance with Dr. Hewit and prior to the birth of baby Fred she is said to have had an affair with a single young man and this coming to her husband’s ears there were accusations and denials and a denouement. A near relative said yesterday that the husband made his own investigation and told him that he did not think his wife was guilty. The affair was forgiven and happiness in the family was apparently restored.

Hewitt, against the wishes of her husband became physician of the family shortly after their meeting at Sea Girt. Even at the seaside the attentions of the doctor to the young wife were remarked by the hotel guests, but the reports did not reach her husband’s ears. As often, too, did Dr. Hewitt find occasion to visit his married patient at her home on North fifteenth Street, and always in the day time, when the lawyer was at his business down town.

An Incident of the Past

Mr. Backus, her father, was one night in May witness to an event which nearly caused a separation, but which, owing to the appeals of the wife herself and her family and the dictates of the husband’s heart, was prevented. It was nearly dusk when Dr. Hewitt’s carriage drove up to the door of the Bowman residence, and he, attended by another man, half-lifted Mrs. bowman out and led her into the house. Mrs. Bowman was in a semi-conscious condition and was carried upstairs by Dr. Hewitt, who at once departed. Mr. Backus summoned his own physician, Dr. Kaeffen, who pronounced it a case of morphia poisoning. After considerable work she was restored to consciousness, and bursting into tears asked that all but her husband retire. Then, it is said, she confessed to him that she had visited Dr. Hewitt at his office, having been seized with cramps while shopping. He administered a drug and no sooner had she taken it than he told her it was poison and unless she consented to elope at once with him he would not giver her an antidote. the wife said that she refused and Hewitt, becoming frightened, dispatched his office boy for three physicians who succeeded in restoring her t a condition which admitted of her removal home.

Another story from a different source says that Mrs. Bowman herself took the morphia because she became conscience stricken. They had planned an elopement to Brazil, and when she at the final moment refused to go he threatened to have nothing to at all to do with her. According to his story, she swallowed the drug in a fit of despair. The wronged husband promised to condone the offense and his wife promised loyalty in the future and eternal separation from Dr. Hewitt. Events show that she did not keep her word. Her visits to his office soon became as frequent as old.

Preparing To Vacate

On Friday last Mr. Bowman came over from camp unexpectedly at midday and his wife was not about. He had been told that Dr. Hewitt was seen at Devon inn frequently during the week. The room look disturbed as if there had been preparations to vacate. The wardrobe containing his wife’s dresses and the bureau used by her were empty. Mr. Bowman was frantic and surmised the worst. At this point the wife entered the room and when confronted by her husband it is said she declared that her trunk was already packed and that she had determined to go to New York and from there to Europe with Dr. Hewitt. The husband was astonished. He pleaded with her, but she was obdurate. He summoned her brother, and between threats and entreaties she was apparently dissuaded from her purpose and said she would go to Atlantic City to see her parents. (Continued tomorrow)

Adapted from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
1The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, Feb 7, 1881, page 4.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Suggested Holyoke Books

Mountain Park -- The Holyoke destination we all loved.

Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College, Postcard History by Donna Albino. Many Holyoke women have attended Mount Holyoke. Author also maintains an amazing MHC website based upon her personal collection.

Holyoke - Chicopee, A Perspective

Holyoke-Chicopee: A Perspective, by Ella Merkel DiCarlo. DiCarlo, a former Transcript columnist offers a fascinating compilation of her essays. Published in 1982, this out-of-print book is worth looking for in the aftermarket.


Holyoke, by Craig Della Penna. The first Holyoke book in the Arcadia series, published in 1997.

Belle Skinner Collection

Belle Skinner Collection, by Ruth Isabel Skinner. Published in 1933, this book is long out of print but copies are still available in the aftermarket.

Mitch Epstein: Family Business

Mitch Epstein: Family Business Published in 2003, available in the aftermarket. Epstein's furniture.