This Was Then: Body count

Suspicious suicides near Farm Pond.


There’s a Victorian trope in literature, art, and theater — later echoed in films and television — of the troubled, distraught heroine who walks into the sea to die. Although its roots go back to at least Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the tragic notion of a woman’s suicide by drowning became fixed as a glamorized, romantic meme in popular Western culture by the mid-1800s. It was the subject of Thomas Hood’s hugely popular 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs,” and the acclaimed 1851 painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais; it’s referenced throughout Charles Dickens’ novels, and the potential, morbid spectacle was even used in an 1872 book for tourists to the city of London.

The reality is that it is not that easy. Historically, most drowning suicides involve a jump from a bridge or a boat, a whole lot of alcohol, or both. Author Virginia Woolf famously succeeded in the deep, fast-running River Ouse, but only by filling the pockets of her overcoat with rocks. One can’t just simply wade into a waist-deep pond and expect eternal peace.

But it did make for a conveniently tidy conclusion when dead women were discovered floating in the water. In 1916, when the body of Henrietta McLeod was found afloat in Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs, clad only in her underwear (, the authorities soon determined that “while temporarily deranged she tore off her skirts and leaped into the pond,” disregarding the facts that her upper and lower teeth had been knocked out, that she was missing a gold ring, and that her lungs were empty of water.

Likewise, in 1937, when the body of socialite Ellen Shackelford was discovered on the narrow beach across Seaview Avenue from Farm Pond (, authorities concluded that she intentionally threw herself off the deck of a passing steamship, even though no water was found in her lungs, she hadn’t bought a ticket, nor had she been seen aboard the steamer.

So when a gentleman was strolling near Farm Pond around noon on a Friday in July 1887 and discovered a woman’s body, the authorities were also sure to land upon an all-too-convenient explanation.

The Boston Globe reported, “Miss Drucilla Parlow, who has been in the family of Charles Adams of New Bedford for some years, was drowned today in Farm Pond. Miss Parlow has been suffering from some mental trouble and has been in the habit of taking long walks at unusual hours. This morning she started from the house at 4 o’clock, saying she was going for a walk. About noon her body was found floating in the shallow water of Farm Pond.”

Parlow, age 45, grew up in Rochester, the second of three sisters. She worked for two decades as a “domestic servant” for the family of Capt. Zenas Adams, a New Bedford grocer and ship dealer, starting in the late 1860s. After the captain’s death in 1882, Parlow continued to work for his widow, Sarah Adams, and their two grown, Nantucket-born sons, Charles and Howard.

By the early 1880s, Sarah, Charles, and Howard Adams and their families were summering together in Cottage City, and Parlow came along with them as their live-in maid. The extended family owned a cottage in the Campgrounds at 28-29 Trinity Park, and Charles also had his own cottage at 1 Hebron Ave. (A cousin — prolific photographer S.F. Adams — lived in the ornate building on Circuit Avenue where Linda Jean’s stands today.)

Elder brother Charles Adams, a couple of years younger than Parlow, was married with a teenage daughter. He had been a Pittsfield clothier, but in recent years had been managing his father’s successful shipping business in New Bedford. He would continue to maintain the Adams family cottage in the Campgrounds through at least 1897. Younger brother Howard was married with a young son, born shortly before Parlow’s death. Howard suffered from Bright’s disease (a serious kidney ailment); shortly after Parlow’s death, he moved back to his mother’s house in New Bedford, where he died in 1888.

If there was any investigation of Parlow’s early morning death in the shallow waters of Farm Pond in 1887, there is no record of it. The Fall River Evening News printed one final report of the woman “who wandered off at 4 o’clock that morning.” Parlow, concluded the newspaper, “in a fit of derangement threw herself into the pond.” Case closed.

One more dark tale of a nearby pond: In September 1892, an infant was found dead on the shores of Sunset Lake. Two weeks later, on a tip, Dukes County Sheriff Jason Dexter and Cottage City Police Chief James Twombly tracked down the baby’s mother in Newport, R.I. She was arrested, charged with infanticide, and brought back to the Edgartown jail. The mother, whose name was reported variously as Mary Silvia, Mary Sylvia, or Francisca de Silveira, primarily spoke Portuguese, and had been employed at the Sea View Hotel for the summer. She pleaded guilty to murder, but afterward recanted, for as the Fall River Daily News reported, her plea was “probably through not being able to understand the English language.” She soon clarified that the infant was already dead when she threw its body into the pond. The charges were changed, and the mother was ultimately sentenced to four months in prison for the crime of “concealment of death.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.