CONNECTIONS: The Widow Williams, an uncommon woman

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By Tuesday, May 9 Life In the Berkshires  2 Comments
The Pittsfield Cemetery gravestone of Hannah Williams. Photo courtesy

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 21st century.

It was said of Madam Williams that she fulfilled best not the role of maiden or wife, but the role of widow. Born in 1730, married in 1763, she was widowed in 1785.

The Pittsfield Cemetery gravestone of Hannah Williams. Photo courtesy

The Pittsfield Cemetery gravestone of Hannah Williams. Photo courtesy

Before the mid-19th century, wives could not own property separate from their husbands. They could not conduct business or sign contracts. A widow, however, was in a much different position. Given the right circumstances, she could assume some of her husband’s rights after his death. Key among those, she could inherit and own his property.

Hannah Dickenson Williams was the third wife of Colonel William Williams. Hannah was a spinster far too long to suit 18th century taste. However, when she did marry, Hannah made a good match.

Williams was born in 1713 and graduated from Harvard in 1729. During his more than 30 years as a citizen of Pittsfield, Williams was well-liked, well-respected and prosperous. He was described as a soldier, a judge and a Tory. He died in 1785 at the age of 72.

Just six years after Williams’ death, on the 1791 tax rolls, Hannah, the Widow Williams, is one of the richest people in Pittsfield and one of the five largest land holders. In spite of or because of her wealth, she was not liked. Major Israel Stoddard, a nephew, described Williams’ three marriages this way: “First to Miss Miriam Tyler for her good sense, and got it; second to Miss Sarah Wells for love and beauty, and had it, and third to Aunt Hannah Dickenson and got horribly cheated.”

A powerful and financially successful woman was an anomaly and not likely to be popular. Still it is not clear in what way Stoddard believed Williams was cheated. Williams lived well until he died. Hannah didn’t cheat him out of money, companionship or loyalty. Instead, she cheated everyone else.

She persuaded Williams to place everything in her name shortly before his death essentially making her a “deputy husband.” Therefore, he seemed to die penniless or, specifically, to have approximately 175 pounds in his estate. His creditors, holding paper for a much larger amount, were cheated. His children fared no better. His son by his first wife predeceased him. The four children by his second wife were married and settled, which was lucky as there was nothing in the estate for them to inherit. Hannah had it all and she was not about to share. According to one report, the youngest child, an unmarried daughter, was “turned adrift by William Williams’ third wife and joined the Shakers.”

Hannah understood the world in which she lived and, if she had not convinced her husband to turn the property over to her, she would have been at the mercy of a male executor holding her purse strings.

The Pittsfield Cemetery gravestone of Joseph Shearer. Photo courtesy

The Pittsfield Cemetery gravestone of Joseph Shearer. Photo courtesy

Hannah was disliked (and Williams “cheated”) probably because the characteristics of a good wife and those of a successful independent woman were very different. Hannah did not have the docile, dependent nature that created domestic bliss in 18th-century America. Neither the idea of a man doing all the thinking or owning all the property appealed to Hannah. She maneuvered so that, after her husband’s death, she made all her own decisions and she had all the property.

Here is the mystery of Hannah Williams. For one so independent, successful and adept at widowhood, why would she marry again? In doing so, her husband became the holder of the money and property and her “boss.” What possessed her to make such a mistake?

Her second marriage was to Joseph Shearer, a day laborer and a man 26 years her junior. It was possible that both received in the marriage what they bargained for: Joseph needed money and Hannah was charmed by his courting. It is said he told her that he “worshiped the ground she walked on” and, since she owned more property than almost anyone else in Pittsfield, he was probably speaking the absolute and unvarnished truth.

Once the bargain was struck, no one mistook theirs for a happy marriage. Hannah brought charges against Shearer for plotting her murder. She charged he attempted to kill her by seating her on an unbroken horse, by leaving the cover off a well in hopes she would step into it, and by poisoning her food. The evidence, however, failed to sustain the charge and Joseph left the court a free man. For any who doubted his innocence, history redeemed him, or perhaps Hannah bringing charges subdued and restrained him from any further attempts. In either case, Joseph did not bury his wife until she was 91.

Even so, what possessed Hannah to marry given the position of a wife at the end of the 18th century? A clue is offered in a 1901 article printed in Berkshire Hills magazine. The unnamed author writes, “The one spirit that I would summon back…is the shade of Joseph Shearer.”

That is a kind of endorsement if not of his character, then of his personality. The writer admitted Shearer married to get his hands on his wife’s money. He described Shearer as “a perfect tyrant” after the marriage. Still there was something so compelling and entertaining about the man that one could not help but miss him and want to call him back. Perhaps Hannah could not resist him.

Hannah died in 1821 – still three decades before a wife could control her own property. On her headstone, Shearer put: ““To the memory of Madam Hannah Williams consort of the Honorable William Williams and last wife of Joseph Shearer Esq. Born September 20, 1730 and died May 21, 1821.”

Joseph Shearer wasted not one word of affection on his wife’s tombstone. It bore witness to the fact that wife was not the best role for Hannah Williams Shearer.

Shearer died in 1838 at the age of 82. He lived quite comfortably on Hannah’s money for another 17 years. Reputedly, he was generous to friends, family and the town of Pittsfield. In the end, however, he was pronounced decidedly odd. He was a hoarder. His dress was that of “the meanest dog.” His speech was at times unintelligible, and he refused to write a will thinking it would hasten his end. So, all the money and property that Williams accumulated, that his widow got control of and that Shearer appropriated as the right of a husband, in the end went to the Commonwealth.

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2 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Carolyn Fabricant says:

    Always interested in Carole Owens’ articles! Curious to know the location of the Williams property that ultimately went to the Commonwealth.

  2. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    I hate history – you get these glimpses of some really wonderful meaty stories and then – not even a portrait? of either one? a diary? you are the best of teases, Ms. Owens!!!!

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