It was probably 1851 when author Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet, who wrote under the name Mrs. E.F. Ellet, arrived in Easton. As the railroads were still a few years away from direct service to the Lehigh Valley, she may have come to the area by coach or canal boat. To judge by circumstantial evidence, she had probably most recently been in New York, which is where she then made her home. Exactly why Ellet went to Easton is unknown. Upon arrival, the attractive author, who wore her hair in the ringlets that were fashionable at the time, soon found herself invited into the burgeoning canal town’s social set.
And it was while talking to what she called one of the “oldest inhabitants,” she heard a strange, lurid tale that had been passed down over the previous 80 years. It dealt with the unsolved murder, just prior to the Revolution, of a Philadelphia woman of supposedly flirtatious ways and the suspicious events that lead to her grisly death.
Ellet was no literary lightweight. She had studied French, German and Italian and her first published work, at age 16, was a translation of Italian poetry. By 1851 she had just finished the third and final volume of her “The Women of the American Revolution.” Despite what Abagail Adams had said to her husband John about remembering “the ladies,” up to this time male historians had not. Ellet’s pioneering work is still considered an important source of information about the prominent women of the day who played a role in the war for independence.
The tale of the 18th century Easton might have appealed to Ellet for many reasons. For one thing, her primary source of income was in writing fiction for women’s magazines. It was the type of tale that was their bread and butter. She must have known right away that she would have no trouble selling editors on the idea.
In 1835 Ellet, whose father was a physician who had studied in Philadelphia with Dr. Benjamin Rush of Revolution fame, married William Henry Ellet, a New York chemist. That same year she published an anthology of poems, some translated from the Italian, others her own work. The following year the couple relocated to Columbia, South Carolina, where he was named a professor of chemistry, mineralogy and geology at South Carolina College. The next nine years as a professor’s wife in a rural South Carolina town were not dull for her. Ellet wrote a series of books on a wide variety of topics that ranged from German poetry to a study of scenery she had seen in traveling around America.
But, for undisclosed reasons, in 1845 she decided to leave her husband and move to New York. There was no divorce. He joined her in New York in 1850 and worked as a chemist for a gas company there until his death in 1859. In the 1840s no one was singing “New York, New York,” but ambitious writers like Ellet already knew “if they could make it there, they’d make it anywhere.” She plunged into the literary scene, making friends with Edgar Allen Poe, the latest literary lion for his poem “The Raven.” His fan base, as it might be called today, included many female writers. Ellet apparently wanted more than just a mentoring relationship. Poe apparently was not interested, but a huge dispute over some letters she sent him had literary Manhattan on its ear. At one point it even included Poe arming himself with a pistol when Ellet’s brother threatened to kill him. Later into the 1850s she tangled with the editor and publisher Rufus Griswold in a complicated divorce he was undertaking.
In the midst of all this, “The Fate of a Flirt of The Olden Time” appeared in the May 1852 issue of Ladies Companion magazine. Other sources claim “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” the leading women’s magazine of the day, had it first. This may have been because that name was more familiar to the male writers who wrote about it or because it later appeared there in a “pirated” edition, copyright laws being what they were in those days.
Ellet’s actual introduction, which future users of the tale did not use, began with her reaction to an article she saw:
“Looking over a Philadelphia magazine published in 1791 I was somewhat amused by an article therein, censuring severely the indolence and fine ladyish manners of the women of that day, and contrasting enervating habits of mode and modern refinement with the simplicity, frugality and industry of their grandmothers.
No doubt as we recede into the past, we shall in successive generations be similar examples of veneration for a by-gone age at the expense of the present –similar interest of contrast, in which the verdict is always in favor of those who have passed from the action.
In the next age we matrons of the present day shall have the experience of being held up as examples for imitation to our juvenile descendants and shall serve to illustrate the virtues of the past generation.
This story was related to me almost on the spot where the incident took place and is confirmed by the oldest inhabitant as taking place some 80 years ago in the now flourishing town of E—“
She begins by creating a contrast with the bustling canal town Easton of 1852 with that of 1772. That town is rural and clearly provincial. She notes that most of the town’s inhabitants at the time were conservative Pennsylvania Dutch.
“Philadelphia, though at that time but a village in comparison to what to what it is now, was looked on as a place of luxury and corruption dangerous to the morals of youth. Few of the families composing the settlement of Easton had ever been there or had visited any other provincial cities.”
The women of the community she described as simple people who wore cloths they made and were of the class “who stayed home, read the Bible and wore frocks.” No one wanted change and feared what little they saw. Then into their lives came a Philadelphia woman. She occupied a decorated cottage, wore stylish cloths and was English. Ellet calls her Mrs. Winton, and although she was married and had a child, she did not mix with the rest of the community except in one way that alarmed them deeply: she flirted with their husbands. “Her charms, in their eyes, were so many sins, which they were inclined to expiate, before they relented as far as to extend to her the civilities of the neighborhood,” writes Ellet.
Finally deciding they could no longer take it, in the dark of night the housewives of Easton took the woman to a local pond and dragged her under the water as they did so, saying, “this is for my husband.” The next day her body was found by the side of the pond. “It was beyond doubt,” writes Ellet, “it had not been designed by its actors to end in tragedy; but simply the punishment assigned to witchcraft in popular usage.” No one was ever found guilty of the crime but Winton’s ghost was said to haunt the place of her death, even long after the pond was drained.
How much of Ellet’s tale came from what she heard, and how much of it is based on her imagination is unknown. It was so widely known in the area that it must have had fact as its base. At the same time anyone who grew up on the tales of Washington Irving and was mentored by Edgar Allen Poe might try to create a romantic tale with a touch of horror in it that would appeal to readers. To modern readers it smacks somewhat of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” In 1860 local historian Matthew Henry included Ellet’s article in his History of the Lehigh Valley. It was also re-printed in the History of Easton, published in 1885. Recently her tale of the flirt has been revived in ghost tales and tours told at Halloween in Easton.
After her husband’s death Ellet continued to write. Among other things her works included “The Practical Housekeeper,” a 600-page book on homemaking, “Women Artists in All Ages in All Countries,” the first book of its kind to represent female artists, and “Queens of American Society,” a social history of life at the White House. She was also literary editor of the New York Evening Express.
In her finally years Ellet devoted herself to fundraising for poor women and children. She also became a Catholic. She died in 1877 at the age of 58 and is buried next to her husband in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.