Lewis Hine caption: A Suggestion for Dependent Widows. Mrs. Bessie Hicks, a widow in the mill settlement at Matoaca, Va. She has no children large enough for the cotton mill, so she is starting a little store in her home. Location: Matoaca, Virginia, June 1911.
Bessie Hicks may not have worked in the Matoaca cotton mill, but she most certainly lived in the shadow of it. She was about 30 years old when this photo was taken with two of her young children, Camilla and Joseph, but she looks more like she could be the grandmother. The caption intrigued me. “A Suggestion for Dependent Widows,” writes Hine. He goes on. “She has no child large enough for the cotton mill, so she is starting a little store in her home.”
I wondered: “What kind of store? How did it work out? When did her husband die?”
The research process turned out to be long and frustrating. But I finally got lucky. I found out that one of Bessie’s daughters, then Bessie Liskey, died in 1944, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and then obtained her obituary. It said in part, “Surviving besides her husband are her mother, Mrs. Bessie Hicks, of Washington, DC.” So I went down to the Smith College library and searched the Washington Post digital archives. Quickly, I found the obituary for Bessie Hicks. Not too long after, I was talking to one of her granddaughters, Mrs. Marion Sender, who was very surprised to learn of the photo.
Bessie A. Boyers was born in Virginia around 1880, and married Joseph B. Hicks around 1897. In the 1900 census, they lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and had one child, Clinton E. Hicks, born in 1898. Joseph’s occupation was listed as bee keeper. In 1910, they are still living in Harrisonburg, and Joseph is listed as a bartender, and Bessie is listed as a seamstress.
For reasons we will apparently never know, Bessie was living a year later in the mill village of Matoaca, on the outskirts of Petersburg, about 150 miles southeast of Harrisonburg. In the past year, her husband had died, and she is stuck in rundown mill housing with five children, Clinton, Louisa, Bessie, Joseph Jr., and Camilla. Clinton was the oldest, and at 12 years of age, was apparently too young to work in the Matoaca Cotton Mill, at least according to what Bessie told Hine. My research shows that Virginia passed a child labor law in 1910 making it illegal to hire workers under the age of 14.
In 1920, Bessie is back in Harrisonburg, occupation dressmaker, with all her children except Clinton. Louisa, 18, is a stenographer for a lawyer; Joseph, 14, is a telegraph messenger. In the early 1930s, she moved in with Clinton, who was living in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Clinton’s daughter, Marion, was born in 1930. The following interview is with Marion (now Mrs. Sender).
Interview with Marion Sender (MS), granddaughter of Bessie Hicks. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on October 27, 2007. Transcribed by Seunghee Cha and edited by Manning.
JM: How did you react to the picture of your grandmother?
MS: I was shocked to see her at a log cabin. She always acted like, you know, she was a southern lady, that she came from money. And I’m sure she told her second husband that, and he told her that. And as soon as they found out that neither one of them had money, he left.
JM: She went back to her maiden name then?
MS: She went back to her former husband’s name. Most people didn’t know she’d ever been married again.
JM: Who did she marry the second time?
MS: His last name was Richards.
JM: And she married him in the Washington area?
MS: No, I think they were in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
JM: Did you know that her first husband died pretty young, at about 35 years of age?
MS: Yes. Bobbie was a bartender the way I understand it. And he died of delirium tremens. That’s what everybody always said.
JM: That’s what happens when alcoholics suddenly stop drinking.
MS: Yeah, you know, bugs and snakes coming out of the water. My brother and I were very careful. In fact, my brother wouldn’t take a drink.
JM: Where would your grandmother have been living at the time you first knew her, and where were you living?
MS: Mount Rainier, Maryland. She lived with us I think nine years. You know, we could never get her age straight, ‘cause she kept changing it. When she was younger, she made herself much younger, and when she was older she made herself much older. But we got the impression she was about 83 or 84 when she died.
JM: Her obituary said she died in La Plata, Maryland.
MS: Right. She was living with her son Joseph.
JM: Now that’s interesting, because Joseph was one of the two children in the picture.
MS: Oh really?
JM: Yes, I was able to determine that by their apparent ages in the photo and by the census information. The photo was in 1911, and Camilla would have been about two or two-and-a-half years old. Joseph would have been about five or six. I noticed that Camilla married someone named Negus. That was her last name when she was listed in Bessie’s obituary.
JM: What was she like? And did she have any children?
MS: Yes. She had three children. She had one by Leonard Negus. That was Christine. She’s now living in Florida.
JM: Did you know Joseph?
MS: Oh, very well.
JM: Where did he live as an adult?
MS: In Baltimore.
JM: What did he do for a living?
MS: Well, he kind of moved around. For a while he drove a gasoline truck in Baltimore. He married Susan. I can’t remember her last name. That was his second marriage. He had three children. And he married a third time. He lived with her off and on for two years while he was still married to Susan. And when they divorced, he married this other lady, if we could call her that, if you know what I mean. His first marriage was to a woman named Sadie. And then he found out she was corresponding with a boyfriend that was in jail. They were living with my mom and dad in Baltimore in an apartment, and this fellow got out of jail and came knocking at the door, and he said, ‘I come for Sadie.’ And my father said, ‘You what?’ So Sadie just packed her bags and left with him. Joe was heartbroken. Then he married Sue.
JM: When Bessie’s husband died, how did she support her kids?
MS: She was a dressmaker.
JM: In the caption, Lewis Hine says that she is going to try to go into business for herself. I wonder if that’s what it was.
MS: Maybe it was. She always earned her living by sewing, and in Harrisonburg there was some upper-class people that she claimed she sewed for. She made their clothes so that they wouldn’t have clothes that looked like anybody else’s. Like a designer. Part of the way she supported her family was I think that my father was only 15 when he went to sea as a merchant marine. He said he lied about his age, and he claimed he traveled the world three times. Every time he’d come home to port, the merchant marine paid him when he got off the ship. And he would bring his paycheck home to help pay all the bills they had run up, and then he’d go back to sea.
JM: What did your father do for a living?
MS: He was a printer. He learned to print as a young boy one summer on school vacation at his uncle’s place.
JM: Where would that have happened?
MS: I don’t know. It had to be Virginia, close to where Daddy was born. He was a printer the rest of his life. He worked 35 years at the government printing office in Washington.
JM: And you lived in Mr. Rainier?
JM: You said that your grandmother always gave you the impression that she had come from pretty good stock. How did she give you that impression?
MS: She dressed very well. She always wore high heels and looked like a million dollars. She could sew out of this world. She made her own clothes, so she always looked pretty spectacular. And she dated until she was way up in her sixties.
JM: Did you have a special relationship with her?
MS: Well, she lived with us for nine years. We were very close. In fact, at her funeral, all her grandchildren were there and all of us claimed to be her favorite. We stood around in a circle outside the church and everybody felt the same way. She was really good to all her grandchildren, not money-wise, just very caring.
JM: Was she a religious person?
MS: Yes, she was Episcopalian. She claimed she was from the High Episcopal Church, of course. In fact, my mother was scared to death I was gonna turn Episcopalian, because of my grandmother. We were Methodist. Once in a while I would go to church with Grandma, and she would tell me that High Episcopalians cross themselves and kneel all the time, but Methodists don’t, and I thought that was so glamorous. Grandma would paint my fingernails before we’d go to church. She always painted her fingernails. And she took a lot of time with me. I became sick one time when I was a little bit older – I think I was fifteen – and the doctor came to the house and said I needed to be hospitalized. In those days, you only went to the hospital if you were dying. And Grandma was there eating dinner and said, ‘Don’t you worry about it. You send Marion to the hospital and I’ll take care of the bill.’ And she did.
JM: In the last few years of her life, was she still sewing?
MS: Yes. She worked as an alteration lady at her daughter Louise’s dry cleaning store. And that was up ‘til about the last two years before she died.
JM: What about her daughter Bessie?
MS: She was married to Herbert Liskey, but she died very young.
JM: Yeah, in fact. I found her obituary. She died in 1944.
MS: Bessie Liskey died of a bad doctor. She went in for a female operation. She and her best girlfriend went in for the same operation. It was in Harrisonburg, and they decided that her girlfriend would go first, and he operated on her first and then he operated on Bessie. He didn’t sew her up properly and she bled to death internally.
JM: Yeah, the obituary says, ‘Mrs. Bessie Liskey, wife of Herbert Liskey, a popular matron and native of Harrisonburg, died at Rockingham Memorial Hospital on Wednesday at 3:30. She had entered the hospital a few hours earlier presumably for a minor operation. News of her death spread rapidly within the city and community and was a shock to her family and her many friends. Mrs. Liskey had held an office position with the Virginia Ship Corporation for many years.’
MS: You know, my father supported my grandmother when she lived with us. In fact, when Mother and Dad got married in Baltimore, his younger brother Joe came to live with them. And pretty soon his mother came to live with them. And then Camilla came, and Billy, who was the cousin; they all came to live with Daddy.
JM: He had a house full of people.
MS: And Daddy supported them all. He always had somebody living with him that he was helping to support. Then Camilla went to New York. She wanted to be a dancer. She was married, and she and her husband had two children. Grandma went to New York once for Thanksgiving and found out that her son-in-law had left Camilla and the two children. They didn’t have enough to eat and hadn’t eaten for a few days. So Grandma bundled them up and brought them back to Mr. Rainier. And they lived with Daddy.
JM: It sounds to me like your father and your grandmother were a lot alike, in the way they took care of people. Did Camilla get married a second time?
MS: Yes, seven years later. She got a divorce in Maryland under desertion. At the time you had to have been deserted for seven years before you could get a divorce. And then she married Leonard. He was divorced from his first wife because she claimed he was impotent. So he married Camilla, and right away she got pregnant with Christine. They went to the Episcopal Church in Mt. Rainier, and the congregation was so thrilled, because they loved Leonard and they were thrilled that Camilla was pregnant. She was furious because they all made a big fuss about her being pregnant and she didn’t want anybody to notice. In my family, there are all these wild stories.
JM: In the Lewis Hine picture, your grandmother is about 30 years old, but she looks like she could be 60. She’s looks like she thinks tomorrow is not going to be any better than today.
MS: Yes, but Grandma, and her daughters, Bessie, Camilla and Louise, were all beautiful women, gorgeous, striking. Christine, Camilla’s daughter, was educated at the Cathedral School with the ambassadors.
JM: How did she wind up getting in that school?
MS: Grandma moved mountains. She really knew how to get things done, and she got her in there on a scholarship. And then Christine studied in the summer in Europe. I know she spent one summer in Paris so that she could study French. I think the big thing about Grandma was that she instilled high moral standards in our family for generations forward.
JM: What do you mean?
MS: My father had very high standards. He believed in looking after his family. And he said he always stressed to me to be honest. I think all that came from Grandma.
Bessie Hicks died in La Plata, Maryland, on September 18, 1961, at about age 80. She was survived by three children and ten grandchildren. She is buried at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland. Daughter Camilla Negus died October 17, 1987, at the age of 83. Son Joseph died at an undetermined date. There were no family photographs available.
*Story published in 2008.