Connections: Crazy Sue Dunham, wild woman of the Berkshires

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By Tuesday, Nov 24 Life In the Berkshires  3 Comments
Portrait of Crazy Sue Dunham. George Williams, oil on canvas (The Berkshire Museum Collection).

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

On December 7, 2015 the electronic version of my new book, Remarkable Women of New England: the War years 1754 – 1787 will be available with the hard copy version to follow in January.

Obviously a glutton for punishment, I am thinking about the possibility of a sequel, “Remarkable Women of the Nineteenth Century.”

Not destined to be Iron Man II, still it is interesting how many remarkable women there were in Berkshire in the 1800s. By remarkable I don’t mean just women who made a positive contribution. I mean women remarked upon; it could be women who were murderesses or provocateurs. It could be …Crazy Sue Dunham.

Was this crazy lady remarkable? Evidently she was. In the mid-nineteenth century, Catharine Sedgwick wrote about her; George Williams painted her; it is claimed the 1818 Staffordshire plate commemorating Pittsfield depicted her, and many quoted her. Who was she? Sue was probably our first “bag lady”; a homeless, rootless, bootless woman who wandered Berkshire alone. Why was Sue not nameless and faceless as are many other homeless; good question.


1818 Staffordshire china plate commemorating Pittsfield and allegedly depicting Crazy Sue Dunham.

Sue was born in 1767; born into that eighteenth century world where an adult female was either a wife or a nuisance. There is no record that she ever married. Did that drive her mad? According to Catharine Sedgwick, it did. In “New England Tales” Sedgwick wrote that “Crazy Bet” – her name for Sue – was driven to distraction by unrequited love. There is no record of it.

At the end of her life when reason returned, Sue said her suffering was caused by “a little politics and a little religion.” There is some scant evidence of a tent revival near her father’s home and some anecdotal reports that she was knocked off her rocker by the lurid tales of hell fire and brimstone. The tent revival may have been the “little religion.” The “little politics” may have been a fight between her father and the man she loved.

Sue came of age during the Revolutionary War. Her father, it is said, was a strident supporter of the Constitution; her lover was not. Her father forbid the banns; so perhaps Sedgwick was right.

Whatever the cause, Sue wandered. She wandered for over fifty years until her death in Pittsfield in 1852. Her life spanned American history from the Revolutionary War almost to the Civil War. She walked from Cheshire to Lee from Dalton to Lenox and was known wherever she went.

It was remarkable that she was tolerated in a time when beggars and the insane were not. It was remarkable that she lived free and unencumbered as a spinster in a time when a spinster was closeted and controlled. It was remarkable that she begged and stole to live and there is no record that she was ever prosecuted. It was remarkable that people remembered, saved and repeated her witty sayings and tales of her resourcefulness.

When a lawyer and a doctor found her fishing, they asked what she was doing.

She naturally said “Fishing.”

When they asked for what, she resisted saying, “fish” and answered, “For the devil.”

The lawyer and doctor were interested and asked “What will you use for bait?”

Sue said, “Doctors and lawyers.”

Some boys happened by carrying ears of roasted corn. Sue asked if they would like to hear her pray.

They said yes.

“Well then,” Sue said, “You must put down your corn, here in a stack. You must kneel and cover your eyes. Then I will say a pray for you.”

They did. They heard nothing. They looked around just in time to see Sue with all their corn stealing away.

The story is told with boys and corn, girls and spiced apples, and workers with dinner pails, but all end the same.

As Sue stole away, she shouted back, “The good book says to pray but it also says to watch and pray.”

In July 1835, Fanny Appleton Longfellow wrote in her diary that she was delighted when Crazy Sue stopped in at dinnertime because she was anxious to see her.

Fanny had heard all about Sue, had read New England Tales, but never met her.

Fanny reported Sue was not as crazy as reports would have it, because while she rambled on, there was now and then “an amazingly shrewd hit about matters and things.”

Sue moved and spoke with great rapidity.

“She is a streak of lightening.” Fanny wrote.

Sue wore an odd assortment of clothes including a “whole shoe” on one foot and straps and wrappings on the other. She had roses stuck in her bonnet. She had a straight nose and bright eyes and even well into her sixties, lined and weary, Fanny said, “she was handsome.”

Fanny said she spoke mostly about religion but her speech was punctuated with clever retorts and surprisingly insightful comments about politics.

When asked, Sue told Fanny, “Insanity runs in my family.”

Once when teased by some thoughtless youth, Sue was silent.

They taunted, “Did you know the devil died?”

This interested her. “Oh” Sue said, “when?”

“Yesterday,” the young men said.

“Oh” Sue rejoined “you poor fatherless children.”

All this forces a question: was Crazy Sue in the least crazy?

Was her behavior a guise that allowed — what? Freedom not otherwise afforded females in the early nineteenth century: an escape from her father’s home, freedom to roam, and freedom to speak her mind? Maybe, or she might have been crazy, but she was certainly clever.

Just this morning I realized it is a whole year until the presidential election. Good grief. You and I are faced with an entire year more of whatever we have been treated to so far. For a fraction of a second, as that thought formed, I felt my sanity slip. Gee, Sue, you were right. Politics can drive you crazy.

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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Jeff says:

    A fine collection of observations, memories, and tales that brings a real person “alive” in my sense of her. Thanks for this bit of living history.

  2. tamara says:

    I found this to be quite fasinating,Thank-you!

  3. Michael Forbes Wilcox says:

    Thanks for sharing this snippet of local history; makes me look forward to your new book.

    I had never heard of this character. “Crazy as a fox, ” my mother might have said. Sounds, from your description, like a person we today would call “neurodivergent” — someone who for whatever reason did not fit in, and chose to remain apart from conventional society. Perhaps it was the trauma of the love affair you mention, or perhaps she was just different, and preferred her own company.

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